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REVIEW: ‘Lost in Yonkers’ still has its charm

Since its initial staging in 1991, Neil Simon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Lost in Yonkers” has entertained audiences large and small. The drama about survival takes place in 1942 when a family is facing big changes over the coming year. The all-star cast in The Old Globe production present a wonderful rendition of the play, full of both laughs and poignant moments.

We first meet brothers Jay (Steven Kaplan) and Arty (Austyn Myers) in their Grandmother Kurnitz’s immaculate living room where they are scoping the place out and recalling funny moments with their father’s side of the family. Their father, Eddie (Spencer Rowe), runs back and forth from his mother’s room reminding the boys not to disturb anything or leave hair oil on the doilies. He’s extremely nervous and promising to be finished soon.

Eddie’s absence gives the boys time to introduce us to the family through their conversations. It’s immediately clear they truly dislike their grandmother, whom they’ve barely seen during their formative years. Arty erupts with laughter when Jay mimics their Aunt Gert (Amanda Naughton) who says half a sentence while exhaling and the other half while inhaling. They romanticize speculation about Uncle Louie, who Jay explains is a “bag” man, and the more he tries to explain that, the more Arty misconstrues every word.

They’ve barely begun to discuss Aunt Bella (Jennifer Regan) when she bursts into the room with the energy of a cyclone and about the same unpredictability. She fusses over the boys, smothering them with affection and flapping her hands, before heading downstairs to work in the family’s candy store.

Eddie emerges from the bedroom ending the emotional buildup the boys have endured. He explains his real reason for bringing them to grandma’s: He’s broke from the medical bills incurred by their recently deceased mother and he had to let their apartment go. The only solution is for the boys to stay with grandma for a year.

As the boys whine and complain — Arty sure he’ll grow with the same affliction that Bella has — a very loud thump is heard approaching the living room. In walks grandma (Judy Kaye), as stiff as the Statue of Liberty, but far less welcoming. She’s overheard some of the boy’s objections about her. As she turns one cheek for Arty to kiss and the other for Jay, she tells them, “You don’t survive in the world if you’re not like steel.”

Grandma has a right to be cruel; life has been cruel to her. She was beaten by German officers during the war; but the young boys can’t wrap their minds around that. They just know that grandma is no bear-hugging, cake-making dame, and the sooner their dad comes to get them the better. Made-up far beyond her age, Kaye plays grandma to the hilt. Grandma’s icy demeanor never wavers, yet just enough empathy for her seeps from Kaye’s proficient performance.

Kaplan and Myers liven up the show’s drama with laugh after laugh. Their exuberant innocence feeds every action and they play off each other like Felix and Oscar. When Jay is intent on raising money to get dad home faster, Arty says, “We could cut off grandma’s braid and sell it to the army for barbwire.”

When Uncle Louie shows up with his mysterious bag and a gun strapped inside his jacket, the boys are all ears as he feeds them Hollywood-themed answers to their questions. When he’s out of the room, Jay exhaustingly exclaims, “This is like a James Cagney movie in our own house.”

In this obviously dysfunctional home, it’s perky Bella who balances the seriousness of the situations with completely absurd solutions. Her emotional arc keeps all eyes upon her as she solidly connects with every character in the play. Aunt Gertie has few scenes, but garners plenty of laughs every time she speaks.

The new Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre worked well for “Lost in Yonkers.” Whether seeing the play for the 10th time or the first, the Globe’s production is perfect fun for the entire family and will be talked about long after leaving the theater.

‘Lost In Yonkers’

  • Where: The Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park
  • Performances: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays; and 7 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 28
  • Tickets: $29-$62, (619) 23-GLOBE, www.TheOldGlobe.org

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