Summer of ‘42

Lost in Yonkers

Rated 4.0

The Chautauqua Playhouse up in suburban Carmichael is a poorly ventilated theater—the windowless space apparently served as a high-school music room in a previous life. It can get pretty warm for both performers and audience on a late summer evening, and during intermission floor fans are switched on to clear out the stuffy air.

Modern comfort it ain’t. But it’s actually a perfectly appropriate setting for the first scene of Neil Simon’s nostalgic Lost in Yonkers, which opened up Chautauqua’s 25th anniversary season last weekend.

The play begins with teenage brothers Jay and Arty (well played by David James and Jonathan Petty, who look to be high-school students in real life) complaining about the heat and trying to cool off by standing in front of a fan. It’s 1942, the boys’ hair is held in place with enough goo to open up a petroleum reserve, and they’re dressed in their best outfits, waiting nervously while their father negotiates their future in the next room with their grandmother, a tyrannical figure whom everyone in the family dreads.

What follows is a homage to boyhood at a time when Hollywood was enjoying its golden age, the nation was making due during wartime shortages, and New York’s immigrant stew ran more to Italians, Irish, and European Jews than to Haitians, Pakistanis, Russians and Albanians.

And while it’s a comedy, it’s also a play with some pretty dark underpinnings. Some nasty, manipulative family dynamics are at work, even though they’re sometimes played for laughs. And when Uncle Louie, who’s very nervous about his black satchel, takes off his jacket to reveal a hidden, holstered pistol, the shadow of organized crime passes over the story as well.

This 1991 Pulitzer-winning script is one of Simon’s deliberately serious efforts, sporting plenty of his trademark one-liners, but with more dramatic heft than the bubbly comedies that first put him on the map. And for the most part, the cast in this small production is well suited to the task. Actor Dean Shellenberger is terrific as the charming, gregarious and shady Uncle Louie, who’s perpetually just a step or two ahead of trouble. Playing the ditzy Aunt Bella is Lee Marie Kelly, who marshals abundant energy and optimism. Frank James plays the weary, ailing Eddie—the widowed father of the boys, and something of a loser in life. And Barbara Sybert rounds out the surviving siblings as Gert, the quiet one with a breathing problem.

Zita Case plays the grandmother, the stern antithesis of the stereotypical doting Jewish matriarch. This woman is an iron-willed survivor and a skinflint to the last penny, with no small store of bitterness in her heart. Case certainly looks the part, and when she nails her lines, she’s convincing. Alas, she struggled in several scenes last Saturday night—recovering in each case, but momentarily dissipating the momentum.

There’s little in the way of action in this play—mostly, it’s talk around the living room sofa. But director Diane Bartlett never lets that become a problem (though even she can’t fully enliven some of Simon’s pop-psychology dialogue about what ails the family). Set designer Bill Rogers works in a bunch of nice little touches from the period, ranging from an antique fan to a copy of Smart Set magazine.