Thursday, May 15, 2014

Not So Simple Simon: Excellent 'Lost in Yonkers' Found in Skokie -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Lost in Yonkers
a play by Neil Simon
directed by Devon de Mayo
Northlight Theatre, Skokie
Thru June 8

By almost every measure, Neil Simon has had about as much success as a playwright could have.

Dozens of his plays have been successful on Broadway, including Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, Plaza Suite and The Sunshine Boys.

Three have won Tony Awards. Several others have been nominated and/or otherwise decorated. Many of his works have been turned into movies--usually with him doing the screenwriting--and he's received four Oscar nominations, including for The Goodbye Girl, which wasn't based on a play.

In addition to plays and movies, he's served as book writer for classic musicals like Sweet Charity, Promises, Promises and They're Playing Our Song

Before he started writing plays, he was a comedy writer for two pioneering TV legends, Sid Caesar and Phil Silvers.

And at age 56, Neil Simon became the only living playwright to have a Broadway theater named after him, way back in 1983, in conjunction with the opening of one of his most famed plays, Brighton Beach Memoirs.

Biloxi Blues would follow--and win a Tony--then Broadway Bound. And in 1991 came the play I saw at Northlight yesterday, Lost in Yonkers, which won the Tony and a Pulitzer Prize, and which many regard as his best play.

Yet--without my ever having been a theatrical scholar--it seems that when "the greatest American playwrights of all-time" are considered, the now 86-year-old Simon is never mentioned in the same sentence as the Holy Trinity of Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams.

And should a Mount Rushmore of playwrights ever be sculpted, I doubt Neil Simon would even be Teddy Roosevelt.

Again, this is just presumptive conjecture, but I imagine the names Edward Albee, William Inge, Clifford Odets, Thornton Wilder, Horton Foote, David Mamet, Sam Shepard, August Wilson and Lanford Wilson might be mentioned to complete the foursome before anyone says Simon.

This is probably because Neil has had the misfortune of largely being a comedic writer and becoming hugely popular (and not always a critics darling).

I am not well-versed enough in his entire oeuvre to cogently argue his merits versus any of the aforementioned legends. But based on Lost in Yonkers--which is really terrific at Skokie's Northlight Theatre--as well as The Odd Couple, which I saw there a couple years ago, plus a few other plays and movies I've seen over the years, I definitely think Neil Simon belongs in the conversation.

If not carved into stone.

Even in terms of my wanting to see Lost in Yonkers at Northlight, Simon's comedic legacy nearly worked against him.

I knew I had seen and liked the play before, but was surprised in checking my "Shows Seen" database that it was way back in 2000 at the Village Theatre of Glen Ellyn. Though I couldn't recall many specifics, I remembered it being a humorous piece about two teenage brothers being sent to live with their Grandma.

But I didn't really feel I needed to see it again until I noted rave reviews, both from my mom and the Tribune's Chris Jones.

So I availed myself of a $20 day-of-show ticket and took in a matinee of Lost in Yonkers surrounded mostly by senior women not unlike the 83-year-old Ann Whitney, who gives a remarkable performance as Grandma.

Not to imply, let's hope, that the grandmothers in the audience are anywhere near as mean as the one onstage.

For as was either iterated or reiterated, Lost in Yonkers isn't foremost a comedy about two teenage boys in 1942, who are likely representative of Simon himself.

It is a drama--with many humorous lines--about how and why a woman is so stern with her children and grandchildren, years after having immigrated from Germany.

One of her sons, Eddie (Timothy Edward Kane), is the father of 15-year-old Jay (Alistar Sewell) and 13-year-old Arty (Sebastian W. Weigman). He is a recent widower who has to leave his sons with his mom so he can work to pay back debts incurred by his wife's illness.

Already living with Grandma is her developmentally-challenged daughter Bella (Linsey Page Morton), and two of her other children with issues of their own--Louie (Erik Hellman) and Gert (Anne Fogarty)--round out the play's cast.

The acting at Northlight, under the direction of Devon de Mayo, is outstanding throughout.

Whitney and Morton are should-win-awards sensational, Sewell and Weigman are delightful as the sardonic brothers and Kane, Hellman and Fogarty are all well beyond stellar.

It's no surprise to me, as I've often attended shows at Northlight, but the acting in Skokie is routinely as good as anywhere you'll find in Chicago, and that includes (but in no way disrespects or diminishes) the Goodman, Steppenwolf, TimeLine and Court theaters.

The set design by Grant Sabin is also tremendously impressive.

So while I can't pinpoint just what is keeping me from awarding this production a full @@@@@, you should consider this a ardent rave and avid recommendation.

Not for a fun Neil Simon comedy, but for a forceful family drama about as compelling as The Glass Menagerie, A Long Day's Journey Into Night, August: Osage County or just about any written by anyone.

Perhaps Simon is a head below Mssrs. Miller, O'Neill, Williams and a handful of others, but at his best there aren't many ever much better.

And with due deference to more inventive Albee and the more acerbic Mamet, if Gutzon Borglum returns from the great beyond and finds a mountain in Times Square to start carving, I wouldn't object if Neil Simon were 4-ever Broadway bound.

1 comment:

Ken said...


Glad to see you went bonkers over Lost in Yonkers!

Good line about Teddy Roosevelt.

How would you compare the acting in Skokie to would you have seen on Broadway?