By Dale King
Performers, sets, lights and activity have returned to the long-empty stage of Delray Beach Playhouse.
And while coronavirus continues to stymie lifestyles, the DBP staff has “taken this shutdown to work behind the scenes, planning, cleaning, installing state-of-the-art air purification systems and many other items to cope with the new normal,” said Executive Director Kevin Barrett.
Picking up where they left off, the showplace kicks off its 74th season with Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers, a 1991 effort that earned the playwright, by then a veteran of crafting comic and biographical stories for the stage, a Tony Award for best play and a Pulitzer Prize for drama.
Unlike most of Simon’s narratives, this one sports powerful psychological depth rather than a comic flow. It’s the tale of the Kurnitz family in 1942 New York, a troubled troupe headed by a resolute, iron-fisted, German immigrant matriarch, Grandma Kurnitz (Phyllis Spear). Owing to her harsh childhood, she has always been intolerant of what in others she calls “weakness.”
She has caused fear and dread among all others in her realm. In fact, one of the characters notes: “Everyone in Yonkers is afraid of Grandma.”
Others afflicted by her harsh manner are Bella (Kayla Vosburg), her vulnerable, 35-year-old daughter whose slow mental state causes her to come across with childlike behavior. Her brother, Louis (Michael Bradway), is a goodfella gangster wanna-be with visions of godfatherhood and a Joe Pesci flair for one-liners. He only drops by occasionally.
Their sister, Gert (Trisha Sharven), seen only in brief takes, is also mom-scarred with a nervous speech habit. She exhales the first part of her sentences; inhales the second. Sharven excellently masters that verbal glitch for the Delray stage.
At this home gingerly arrives another brother, Eddie (Delray Playhouse veteran Jim Tyminski), who must ask her for permission to place his two teenage sons with her for nearly a year while he takes an on-the-road job to pay off medical bills from his late wife’s cancer treatment. The fact that he’s clearly estranged from his take-no-prisoners mother makes a hard discussion even harder.
As the play opens, his kids, Jay (Jaime Brustein) and Arty (Jacob Bass) are sitting in Grandma’s living room, atwitter and fidgeting with anxiety. Dad is with Grandma in the next room trying to ask the challenging question. Initially, she refuses to let them stay. Bella intervenes, and entices her to change her mind — even though she doesn’t say it.
It’s obvious a lot of things have been left unsaid over the years in this family.
What follows clearly indicates that Jay and Arty remain uncomfortable with the living conditions. Scenes with Bella illustrate this discomfort. Even Bella’s offers of candy and ice cream from Grandma’s sweets shop downstairs fall on deaf ears. The boys feel their harsh elder may judge them weak for accepting treats.
Louis’ arrival brings the closest thing to comic relief. The con man wants everyone to think he’s tough, but he’s a wimp in wolf’s clothing, causing fear in no one. Bella loves her brother despite his tough exterior and Eddie’s kids find him more of a curiosity than someone to be feared.
Clearly, the focus is on the relationship between Bella and her mother. The woman-child who dresses in too-youthful garb wants her mother to show her love and pride; that she holds her dear rather than just tolerate her. But Bella also wants the stern matriarch to cut the apron strings that hold her like chains.
In heart-stirring portrayals, Spear and Vosburg argue passionately a couple of times during Act II until tears flow. Most viewers would say this ferocious, deep-rooted clash between the Grandma and her downtrodden soul-searching daughter finds its core in a darker place than Simon followers are used to.
In fact, the tone of this show is generally darker than most Simon productions. There are hints of humor throughout, particularly from Louie and Gert, who grasp their roles with finesse. Bradway gives an exceptional, scene-stealing performance as the black sheep of the family while Sharven provides necessary humor in her brief appearances as the boys’ high-strung, hyperventilating aunt.
The two actors portraying Arty and Jay excel in mustering exasperation and tolerance but are a shade low on showing emotion.
Phyllis Spear is a familiar player. Audiences at DBP have seen her in dozens of roles, including many created by Neil Simon. She plays Grandma with stone-cold aplomb. It’s a role the veteran of local stage has grasped and handles well.
Jim Tyminski, as Eddie, doesn’t get much of a chance to display his variety of performance capabilities in this show. He is the go-to guy for roles that require reactions in tough situations.
Though new to the East Coast, Kayla Vosburg has performed in theater, film and on television, much of it in California. She keeps her Bella character above the caricature that could seep in when one is skipping around in pink dresses and ankle socks.
Lost in Yonkers plays through Sunday at the Delray Beach Playhouse, 950 NW 9th St. (Lake Shore Drive), Delray Beach. Tickets may be purchased online at www.delraybeachplayhouse.com or by calling 561-272-1281.