In today’s Wall Street Journal drama column, I report with the utmost enthusiasm on an off-Broadway revival of Lost in Yonkers, followed by brief and mostly unfavorable notices of Arena Stage’s Ah, Wilderness! in Washington, D.C., and the Broadway transfer of Newsies. Here’s an excerpt.
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Neil Simon’s “Lost in Yonkers,” which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1991 and whose original production ran for 780 performances on Broadway, is being revived for the first time in New York–in a 99-seat Off-Broadway house. How are the mighty fallen! But here’s the surprise: TACT/The Actors Company Theatre, one of the best small companies in Manhattan, is giving “Lost in Yonkers” a production that will make even confirmed anti-Simonites rethink their position. I’ve never seen a more emotionally persuasive Simon revival, not even David Cromer’s short-lived 2009 Broadway staging of “Brighton Beach Memoirs.”
The plot of “Lost in Yonkers” sounds like the premise for a second-rate sitcom: Eddie (Dominic Comperatore) gets into hot water with a loan shark, stows his two boys (Matthew Gumley and Russell Posner) with his gargoyle-like mother (Cynthia Harris) and goofy sister (Finnerty Steeves) and goes on the lam. What makes it work is that Mr. Simon has upped the ante by turning Eddie into a grieving widower, his mother into a loveless monster and his sister into a slightly retarded woman-child with mature sexual urges. The result is a play whose wisecracks float atop a roiling current of anger and despair.
How to balance these seemingly disparate elements? Jenn Thompson, the director, does it by staging “Lost in Yonkers” as though it were a straight-down-the-center family drama. No winks, no nudges, no slapstick: Every scene is played for truth. Yes, you’ll laugh–a lot–but never at the expense of believability…
Everything that’s right with TACT’s “Lost in Yonkers” is wrong with Arena Stage’s in-the-round version of Eugene O’Neill’s “Ah, Wilderness!” It’s like an illustrated lecture on how not to stage a period comedy, a protracted exercise in joke-jerking that seizes every opportunity to be obvious. The only way to perform a play like this one, in which O’Neill imagined the tranquil family life that he never had as a boy in turn-of-the-century Connecticut, is to do it without a trace of irony. Kyle Donnelly, on the other hand, has directed “Ah, Wilderness!” so broadly that you have to wonder whether she takes seriously O’Neill’s expressly stated intention to write a comedy that was “not in the satiric vein.”…
Imagine, if you dare, a cross beween “Waiting for Lefty” and “High School Musical.” Should you find such a combination appealing rather than appalling, you’ll like “Newsies,” the droningly earnest new Disney musical about the newsboy strike of 1899. Harvey Fierstein, who wrote the book, has turned all the characters into flimsy cardboard cutouts, and the songs, by Alan Menken and Jack Feldman, are namby-pamby pop-rock sprinkled with phony-sounding period touches….
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Read the whole thing here.