By Lucia Arreola
The Costa Mesa Playhouse started the year off right with a production of Neil Simon’s “Lost in Yonkers.” The 1991 play won four Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, completing its Broadway run after 780 performances and moving to regional theaters across the country. The story takes place in Yonkers, New York in 1942, depicting the dilemmas of a dysfunctional family during World War II. Made up of German-Americans, the Kurnitz family strives to come together during this difficult time.
While it would be easy to play these characters as stereotypes, director Wendy Ruth pushes for deeper understandings of each character through the examination of interpersonal relationships between the family members. For instance, Jami Bartlett steals every scene with her engaging portrayal of Aunt Bella, by bringing complexities and depth to the role through her delivery of lines. Although the character has an admittedly childlike demeanor, Bartlett brings a sense of empowerment to the dialogue through the tone in which she calls herself a “woman” and finally stands up to her mother. The audience can see her grow throughout the play from a fearful daughter to a person who makes her own choices due to Bartlett’s nuances with her lines and movement in a scene. She interacts wonderfully with the rest of the cast, all of whom also bring personality and charisma onstage. Through her physicalization of discomfort when speaking about the past, Phyllis M. Nofts also reveals that there are troubles for Grandma Kurnitz, a character that does not openly talk about her past. Her childhood in Germany was far from ideal, so she strives to accomplish the American Dream. Nofts’s expression of these aspirations add to the overall admiration of the character. Uncle Louie, played by Angel Correa, is a traditional mobster with a “tough guy” attitude. Correa, however, does not allow himself to fall back on a tired stereotype. He puts power into the role and shows affection for his family, even if it is not always gladly received.
Through the technical aspects of the show, the designers create visually-stunning designs that add to the authenticity of the period in which this story takes place. Set designer Bradley Kaye transports the audience to the 1940s with Grandma Kurnitz’s elaborate living room, adorned with authentic, vintage decor that brings attention to the stylized elements of the time period. The use of vintage props in perfect condition reminds viewers of what it is like to be in a stuffy old house of a dear relative and brings an element of relatability to audiences. Another designer worthy of mention is costume designer Beatrice Vidaña Collins, who is able to reveal a subtle characteristic of every individual onstage through details in a simple article of clothing. Aunt Bella goes from childish saddle shoes to grownup heels during the second half of the play, as if to assert her transition into womanhood. Uncle Louie is dressed as a classic 1940s mobster with a suit and tie. Grandma perpetually wears a shawl, even when other characters express their discomfort with the heat.
Ruth appreciates this play’s humor and complicated family situation, leading to her choice for “Lost in Yonkers” to be her directorial debut at Costa Mesa Playhouse. Bartlett, an English professor at UCI, also makes her Costa Mesa Playhouse debut in this production, cast in her first leading role. While nervous to take the role, she approached it with enthusiasm as a tribute to her late father, who loved the story when they first saw it together. As advice to the students at UCI, she says, “Have a really fun hobby!” in addition to a major, as college can be made to be much more enjoyable when there are other pastimes to look forward to. While Barlett may be relatively new to acting, she expresses joy about finding a hobby that merges her academic and creative interests. This production cleverly crafts Simon’s witty work in a way that presents thematic elements relatable to modern audiences. While the play debuted on Broadway over 30 years ago, Costa Mesa Playhouse brings new light to the story and creates a compelling production through excellent acting and stunning visuals. “Lost in Yonkers” will continue to run at Costa Mesa Playhouse for the next two weeks, with tickets available here.