Northlight Theatre. By Neil Simon. Directed by Devon de Mayo. With Anne Fogarty, Erik Hellman, Timothy Edward Kane, Linsey Page Morton, Alistair Sewell, Sebastian W. Weigman, Ann Whitney. Running time: 2hrs 20mins; one intermission.
Theater review by Kris Vire
The prolific Neil Simon dialed down the sentimental tendencies of his 1980s “Eugene trilogy” for this 1991 work, which like Brighton Beach Memoirs before it centers on two wisecracking teenage brothers. Unlike Brighton Beach’s Eugene and Stanley, who have the run of the Jerome household, Yonkers's Jay (Alistair Sewell) and Arty (Sebastian W. Weigman) are fish out of water.
Following the death of their mother, their father, Eddie (Timothy Edward Kane), is forced to go on the road selling scrap metal to repay the loan shark he went to for help with hospital bills; Eddie must leave the boys with their Grandma Kurnitz (Ann Whitney), a stern German immigrant whose steely upbringing left scars on each of her four children, including the boys’ excitable aunt Bella (Linsey Page Morton), who’s 35 years old but has the demeanor and attention span of a child. Jay and Arty’s year in Yonkers sparks a shift in the long-stagnant dynamic between Bella and her mother.
Director Devon de Mayo leads a warm and witty production marked by remarkably truthful performances. Weigman and Sewell are terrific finds with a natural brotherly rapport, mercifully sidestepping the danger of their characters coming across like 13– and 15-year-old stand-up comics; both play well off Erik Hellman, who finds subtle gradations in the boys’ uncle Louie, a bagman for the mob. (Anne Fogarty does nicely in the brief and rather thankless role of the boys' aunt Gert, who Simon inserts as essentially the payoff to a running joke.)
But it’s the power struggle between Grandma and Bella that really drives the action. Whitney is impressively unstinting, a terrifying authoritarian as seen through unfamiliar young eyes. Morton, too, has crafted a vivid, heartbreaking portrait of a woman frustrated as much by her internal limitations as by those imposed upon her, yearning for some degree of independence and agency. Her second-act eruption, upon being denied by Grandma one time too many, is an arresting feat of in-the-moment discovery, the cry of a lost child begging to be found.