Relative Merits | Arts & Entertainment | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Relative Merits 

Lost in Yonkers deftly explores the loving families that drive us crazy.

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Life is funny. It is also tragic and lonely. Usually at the roots of this humor, tragedy and loneliness are your family members, whom you would kill if only you didn’t love them so much. Neil Simon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Lost in Yonkers is a masterful exercise in these delicate shadings, and Pioneer Theatre Company has delivered it with appropriate skill and grace.


The curtain opens to reveal two boys'Jay (Chris Landis) and Arty (Kooper Campbell)'stiffly upright on the sofa. It is evident before they say a word that they don’t want to be here, but it just as apparent from the intricate set design by James Wolk that they’re not leaving this room anytime soon. It is a perfect middle-class New York flat circa 1942, with its side dimensions flowing into contextual cityscape. The kitchen is within easy shouting distance upstage right, and the hallway at stage left leads straight back to various potential entrance and exit points.


Entrance and exit points for whom? Why, for a family full of zany characters, of course. Uncle Louie (Sam Osheroff) is a small-time gangster on the run from two guys that we only know by the way Louie watches for them at the window. He uses words like “moxie.” Arty sums him up aptly when he says he’s “like having a James Cagney movie in the house.” Yet Osheroff keeps Louie believable by occasionally ducking out from under the façade of mobster clichés to show us that the easy tough-guy act is a creation of the character, and not of the actor portraying him.


Grandma Kurnitz (Sybil Lines) is the reason for the boys’ anxiety. Actually, she’s the reason for the anxiety of every character in the show. Her entrance is a near-perfect moment wherein Lines, with a single hobbled step and stony expression, fully embodies the character for whom we have been prepared by the previous 10 minutes of fear- and awe-laden dialogue. She only gets better from there. Simply sitting in a chair, she exudes hateful impatience. She wields and gestures with her cane, imbuing it with enough life to nearly warrant billing as a supporting character. Her rare approval and vulnerability barely leak out through her outer crust.


Balancing Grandma’s terrorizing is the simple and excitable Aunt Bella (Ibi Janko). She flies all over the stage and explodes into speech without once seeming to overdo it. She covers over lapses in memory with a combination of denial and embarrassment that is charming despite its repetition.


The show’s strongest moments come late in the second act, when Bella pleads with Grandma about her need to get out of the apartment and start a family of her own. The two best performers in the production simultaneously do their finest work, bringing unanticipated depth to already interesting characters.


Also worthy of note for this midcentury period piece is the costuming by Carol Wells-Day. Arty’s short pants easily distinguish his late boyhood from Jay’s early manhood, despite their closeness in age. The fact that Louie can take himself seriously in a white undershirt with suspenders and high-waisted pants tells us just how tough he really is. Most importantly, though, are Bella’s shoes and socks. They stuck out to me instantly as a sign that this woman is in fact still a girl in many ways.


Extreme as these characters are, they are nonetheless familiar to us. Even more familiar, though, is the love between them despite so many logical reasons for them to go their separate ways. All our relatives are crazy, right? But, for the most part, we put up with them, regardless of the urge to run away and never look back.


nPioneer Theatre Company
n300 S. 1400 East
nThrough March 31

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About The Author

Rob Tennant

Rob Tennant is a Salt Lake City freelance writer.

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