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Joie de Twyford brings 'Lost in Yonkers' home

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 30, 2009

Holly Twyford might not be able to settle all the globe's concerns. But she sure knows how to hold the world of a play in her hands.

Her latest demonstration of inordinate control and instinct and vitality is as the intellectually simple Bella in Theater J's excellent revival of Neil Simon's "Lost in Yonkers." The role of a woman who is still partly a child has all sorts of inherent pitfalls, the most prominent being the ease with which an actress playing one can lapse into unctuousness. If an audience knows that she knows her behavior is meant to evoke sympathy or pity, then all is indeed lost in Yonkers.

That never occurs in Twyford's portrait of an eternal daughter, a woman who over the course of the comedy begins, like "The Glass Menagerie's" Laura Wingfield, to tug at her mother's suffocating yoke. We're aware from the very start that something is off about Bella -- she weirdly misremembers events and speaks indoors in an outdoor voice -- but the actress creates in her the touchstone for us that Simon intends. Despite her limitations, Bella's joie de vivre is the purest expression of optimism in the play, and Twyford embraces it as something entirely natural and, as a consequence, happy-making.

She and the rest of the extremely effective cast are fortunate to have had the services of Jerry Whiddon, who has shown time and again that he is a real actors' director, capable of eliciting from performers the maximum range of their characters' personality. In this instance, for the crucial parts of the grandchildren who come to live with Bella and her ice-cold German-born mother (a formidable Tana Hicken), he has found two teenage actors who reveal that they can compete with the best of the grown-ups on the city's stages.

As the younger boy, Max Talisman -- so right a few years ago as the lonely son in Studio Theatre's "Caroline, or Change" -- delivers Arty's precocious comebacks with a truly funny air of mischief. And the terrific Kyle Schliefer, playing older brother Jay, brings palpable leading-man appeal to the challenging role of a sensitive kid who's forced to navigate the treacherous turf of his grandmother's ancient hurts and grievances. Lise Bruneau, meanwhile, makes the most of the evening's smallest role, creating a figure of compelling warmth out of Bella's insecure sister Gert, the one so anxiety-ridden she can't breathe properly.

Reviving "Lost in Yonkers" is not by a long shot the riskiest undertaking in the history of Theater J, which time and again has been willing to go its own way. Fine work, though, is fine work, and the production -- enhanced by Misha Kachman's World War II-era costumes and Daniel Conway's rendering of a flat of the early '40s, blandly outdated in absolutely the correct manner -- gives conventionality a good name.

What's also revealed, perhaps inadvertently, are the obvious seams in the 1991 play. Although "Yonkers" won Simon his only Pulitzer, it's a middle-range effort. While his feisty plays of the 1960s, like "Barefoot in the Park" and "The Odd Couple," taught Broadway audiences new things about the rhythms of stand-up and sketch comedy, he seemed content in his later works merely to satisfy audience tastes for nostalgia and sentimentality. This did produce some warm memory and character-driven plays such as "Brighton Beach Memoirs" -- now being revived on Broadway -- and to a lesser extent, "Yonkers," even as the formula became less and less successful over time.

Set in 1942 in the apartment of Hicken's Grandma, "Yonkers" is about an emotionally frigid matriarch and the damage her embittered refusal to nurture has inflicted on her children, all disappointments to her: Bella, Gert, the thuggish Louie (Marcus Kyd) and the nebbishy Eddie (Kevin Bergen), Arty and Jay's father. The buildup to Grandma's first entrance is very funny, making it sound as if we're about to come face to face with Lord Voldemort's own mother: Schliefer and Talisman sit on a convertible sofa, quaking with anxiety.

Hicken envelops Grandma in a brittle shell of perpetual contempt. She's not quite the monster Irene Worth made of her on Broadway, and she has an impossible task late in the evening, when out of her own mouth has to come the explanation for her grudging maternal nature. But as with the rest of the cast, she finds a convincing way to knit this woman into the story of a family that explodes the mythology of the immigrant American dream.

Twyford does something more: She makes clumsy, embarrassing Bella a figure of heart and worth. Every second with her becomes a moment of great matter. Which goes a long way toward making this well-acted and -directed evening matter, too.

Lost in Yonkers

by Neil Simon. Directed by Jerry Whiddon. Lighting, Daniel MacLean Wagner; sound, Neil McFadden; dialect coach, Christine Hirrel. About 2 hours 15 minutes. Through Nov. 29 at the D.C. Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW. Visit http://www.theaterj.org or call 800-494-8497.

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