September 01, 1992

Vanilla Soda

Filed under: Archive,Interstate,Theatre

Lost in Yonkers
Neil Simon

Sydney Theatre Company
Melbourne Theatre Company
State Theatre Company
and Sue Farrelly
Her Majesty’s

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

Neil Simon has been a feature of the American stage for so long he’s almost become invisible. After twenty-seven Broadway productions his name is synonymous with smooth comedies of manners -odd couples, urban prisoners, goodbye girls and sunshine boys. Because his plays invariably become films his work is hugely well-known and actors like Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Marsha Mason and Richard Dreyfus have fed well on his lines.

Like Alan Ayckbourn, and to a lesser extent David Williamson, Neil Simon has been heaped with faint praise- enjoyed but not honoured, popular but not a snob success. Part of this has to do with a prejudice against comedy- Woody Allen had such problems before Crimes and Misdemeanors (and after them, come to think of it)- but it also has to do with the kind of comedy Neil Simon writes.

Lost in Yonkers continues Simon’s retro work. Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, Broadway Bound all delve his New York boyhood with warmth and affection. They have also made ideal vehicles for nostalgic movies- with art directors and wardrobe people painstakingly creating a kind of Jewish Norman Rockwell in argyle, fairisle and russet browns; a golden glow of baseball, radiolas and frothy sodas.

Lost in Yonkers, set in New York in the early Forties, tells of two brothers, their mother recently dead, whose father has to go on the road to work off the family debts. They are taken to their grandmother, a stern German Jew who runs a soda shop with her slightly retarded daughter, Bella. The plan is for Grandma to do the minding while Dad goes South for what might be as long as a year. Uncle Louie, a gangster by profession, is also hiding out at the apartment, adding to the general getting of wisdom of young Artie and Jay. The play reveals the griefs and repressions in the family, particularly in the grandmother, dessicated by memories of Germany and her two dead children.

One wonders how Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller might have handled such material. The grandmother opiated in an upstairs room perhaps, or systematically removing lightbulbs. The father crucified and castrated in Mobile or Tampa. Bella getting off the tram with flowers for the dead. Louie getting a view from the bridge in Atlantic City or attaching hosepipe to the exhaust of the Buick. But the heightened emotion and curdled expressionism of the Big Three is not for Neil Simon. He deals with the likely, the ordinary- with that bloom of apple-cheeked optimism that has things turning out Generally for the Best.

Lost in Yonkers won Simon his first Pulitzer last year and it is undoubtedly elegantly and touchingly written but there is a cosy sense of resolution about it, of delving just enough to create a few dramatic moments but nothing to permanently ruffle your hairstyle. That is the deal you make with Neil Simon, take it or leave it.

So if you take it, the combined forces of three state theatre companies and Sue Farrelly have come up with an appealing product. Roger Kirk has designed a detailed set which is assuredly Yonkers to the life, a brownish apartment, big on antimacassars and short on ventilation- but to suggest a world elsewhere it has a cutaway roof with a rich blue beyond. Director Philip Cusack has made good use of a strong cast, ensuring clear, direct performances and, in most cases, accomplished delivery of both New York accents and Simon’s warm gravy humour.

As the two brothers thrown into the forbidding domain of the aged gran, Brian Rooney and Damon Herriman succeed with a convincing blend of anxiety and well-timed humour. Avoiding the pitfalls of either the bratty or the cute, they provide a secure base for the more ranging work of Pamela Rabe as Bella and Robert Grubb as Louie. Both these actors indicate, yet again, their intelligence and invention and remind us by contrast that mainstage work in Adelaide has been getting rather flaky lately.

Ruth Cracknell gives a reserved strength to the Grandmother, a portrait nicely detailed and mercifully free of stereotype. Nicholas Hammond, however, flounders hypermanically as Eddie- if Cusack wants to inject energy into the opening scenes this is not the way to do it- and Kirrily Nolan does her best as Gert, despite being saddled with a one-joke speech impediment.

Lost in Yonkers succeeds with its good humour and urbanity but in the portrait of Bella, Simon is depicting more – a woman prevented from having adult emotions, tied in abusive service to a controlling parent. Pamela Rabe gives us this. But the playwright takes it away again. After the big speech things return to normal and disperse. Families behave like this of course -even the Tyrones and the Lomans and the Kowalskis- but Simon leaves us, not with ambivalence or a creepy calm, but a chirpy voiceover and his own wish for homogenised amiability. Then you’re left wondering why he looked under the rug in the first place, if he didn’t like what was there.

The Adelaide Review, September, 1992.

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