By Dee Jae Cox
“You got Moxy kid.” Uncle Louie, portrayed by Mr. Moxy himself, Stephen Blackwell, tells his young nephew as he zealously slaps him across the chest. It’s 1942 and the war is on, in Desert Theatre Works Production of Neil Simon’s play, “Lost in Yonkers” currently running through January 25th at the Arthur Newman Theatre at the Joslyn Center in Palm Desert. This is the story of a family in survival mode as they cope with loss and past grievances that have left long lasting scars. A little comedy and a lot of drama as they each find their center in the universe at the onset of World War II, in Yonkers, New York.
While Simon has been praised for his equality of the sexes in his work, “Lost In Yonkers” made me ask the question, “Does Neil Simon even like women?” His female characters in this script are sexist and stereotypical. Dead, crazy, or just downright mean. And the male characters aren’t much better. All due to the tyrannical upbringing of an abusive mother. I have seen some of Simon’s work that I really enjoyed; “Lost In Yonkers” was not one of those shows.
What saved this show for me, were the performances of a few very talented actors. June August as, Grandma Kurnitz, was brilliant. I loved her, hated her and came to understand how the loss of two children had pushed her over the edge and into becoming the woman that terrorized her family. From the moment she entered, she commanded the stage. While Simon’s words were witty, no doubt that he can write, but it was Ms. August’s professional and stellar performance that made me even care about this character long enough to find out what had twisted her into the miserable woman that she had become.
Daniela Ryan’s portrayal of Bella was spot on. Ryan can act. A frenzied and confused adult woman with a child’s mind, Ryan’s performance made me sit up and take notice and overlook the fact that I didn’t care much for the script. I wanted to hear what she was saying. The final emotional breakdown scene between Bella and her mother is what made this play worth seeing.
Cameron Keys, as Jay and Angus Feath, as Arty, are the two young boys who are forced to endure almost a year at grandma’s house while dad, portrayed by Gregg Aratin, is off making money to pay off the medical bills for their now deceased mother. Evidently killing off mothers is not just reserved for Disney films. Keys and Feath are adorable and engaging to watch. Their process of trying to make sense in their chaotic, dysfunctional family is both entertaining and inspirational. I was especially happy to see age appropriate casting for the roles. I was not asked to suspend disbelief and accept a college freshman as a young teen.
Adina Lawson as Aunt Gert, is a gem and fun to watch. The set design by Ron Phillips-Martinez captured my interest from lights up, an early 20th Century New York Apartment complete with doilies on the back of the couch. I was especially captivated by the Briana Taylor’s costumes. Though I found the lights up/lights down depicting scene changes to become a bit redundant, the overall direction by Lance Phillips-Martinez was solid and it was obvious that some thought had gone into the staging. I especially enjoyed the music selection, which set the mood and 1942 era.
Desert Theatre Works gets a zero stars on Broadway rating, for having zero shows written by women in their season. But they are a class act. There are months of work that go into a production before that Opening night curtain call, it’s nice to see a company that takes their work so seriously.
This is a family show and the laughs could probably be enjoyed by all ages, but I’d leave the under 12 at home.
Lost in Yonkers, a production of Desert Theatreworks, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Jan. 25, at the Arthur Newman Theatre at the Joslyn Center, located at 73750 Catalina Way, in Palm Desert. Tickets are $23 to $25
For Reservations: call 760-980-1455, or visit www.dtworks.org.
Dee Jae Cox, is a playwright, director and producer. She is the Cofounder and Artistic Director for The Los Angeles Women’s Theatre Project and the host of KPTR 1450’s hit radio show, “California Woman 411” in Palm Springs.