‘Lost in Yonkers’ readying for Village Theatre debut

January 19, 2010

By Warren Kagarise

Collin Morris, Nick Robinson and Jennifer Lee Taylor (from left) appear as Jay, Arty and Bella in the Village Theatre production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Neil Simon play ‘Lost in Yonkers.’By Jay Koh /Village Theatre

The skeletons hidden in the closet rattle loose in “Lost in Yonkers,” as the Neil Simon dramedy plumbs deep into the emotional trauma buried by the Kurnitz clan, a family led by a ruthless grandmother.

Enter Jay and Arty, teenage boys, the youngest family members and the latest to be thrust into the emotional maelstrom at Grandma Kurnitz’s apartment. “Lost in Yonkers” unfolds above a candy store where the stern grandmother is the proprietor, but the setting is saccharine only in the literal sense.

Village Theatre alumnus Brian Yorkey will direct the ensemble cast when the theater revives the period piece Jan. 20. The tale recounts the tense times after serious Jay and wisecracking Arty move in with Grandma Kurnitz. The boys arrive at the apartment after their mother dies and their father takes work out of town to pay back a bad debt.

Jay and Arty also share the apartment with dim-witted Aunt Bella. The scarred Kurnitz brood also includes Uncle Louie, a small-time thug.

“Lost in Yonkers” shares DNA with “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” “Biloxi Blues” and “Broadway Bound” — other semi-autobiographical works in the Simon canon.

“He really, I think, dug deep for this one,” Yorkey said. “It’s one of his best, and the chance to work with a cast of some of Seattle’s best actors on a play this meaty, you can’t pass that up.”

“Lost in Yonkers” is set in the early 1940s, and Yorkey said he wants the production to create a feeling of being within a childhood memory.

“I think I’m sort of a romantic fool in this way, but I always feel that there’s an audience for a good story that’s told well, and that’s Neil Simon’s stock in trade,” Yorkey said.

The production will mark the first time “Lost in Yonkers” has been presented at Village Theatre. The play debuted on Broadway in early 1991.

“Lost in Yonkers” won four Tony Awards, including Best Play, during the original Broadway run. Simon also pocketed a Pulitzer Prize for the work.

Issaquah native Yorkey — a Tony Award winner who wrote the book and lyrics for the original musical, “Next to Normal” — said the work shares themes with “Lost in Yonkers.” “Next to Normal” deals with a family straining against the rigors brought on by mental illness.

“In ways, it has similarities to ‘Next to Normal’ in that it’s a family story that mixes some real hearty laughs with some real tough and moving drama about the way families relate, and the secrets families keep and what families have to go through to hold themselves together,” Yorkey said.

Issaquah native Jennifer Lee Taylor will return to the Village Theatre Mainstage as Aunt Bella. Broadway queen Mercedes Ruehl earned a Tony when she originated the role.

Taylor last performed on the Village Theatre Mainstage in “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Yorkey directed the piece.

Suzy Hunt, a Broadway veteran, tackles the formidable Grandma Kurnitz role. Mike Dooley brings film, stage and television experience to the part of Uncle Louie.

Nick Robinson, 14, will make his Village Theatre debut as Arty, the younger boy. The character leavens heavy moments with humor.

“He’s the guy who delivers the one-liners, because that’s how he deals with stress,” Robinson said.

A Seattle native and a stage veteran, Robinson recently completed filming a pilot for ABC Family. He said “Lost in Yonkers” piqued his interest in other Simon productions.

“Somehow, Neil Simon finds a way to blend in humor and human nature into it,” he said.

KIDSTAGE alumnus and Liberty High School graduate Collin Morris portrays Jay, the 15 1/2-year-old elder brother.

“Throughout the show, he feels as though he sort of has to fill in that adult role because the father’s gone,” Morris said. “He kind of feels like he has to be the man of the house.”

Morris, 18, and the cast worked with a dialect coach to learn the New York accent. The actor found aspects of the character easier to embrace.

“Working with the text, and just sort of figuring out Jay as a character, he really has a lot more in common with myself than I initially would have thought,” Morris said.

The production also prompted him to read more Simon works: “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” “Biloxi Blues” and “Broadway Bound,” called the Eugene Trilogy after the main character in the series.

“He has a very unique writing style and it’s very, very personal,” Morris said.

If you go

‘Lost in Yonkers’

Jan. 20 – Feb. 28

$19 – $59

Francis J. Gaudette Theatre

303 Front St. N.

392-2202

www.villagetheatre.org

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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