Best known for joke-crammed comedies like Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple, playwright Neil Simon moves into darker waters with his 1991 Pulitzer-winner, Lost in Yonkers (running at the Bartell Theatre through Sept. 23). Simon's trademarks - frantic New Yorkers, loaded miscommunications - are still present, but themes of anti-Semitism and emotional abuse underlie the snappy humor.
When their widowed father (Carl Cawthorne) lands the only job that will save him from the loan sharks, Arty and Jay (Oliver Redsten and Timothy Smith) have no option but to move in with their kooky Aunt Bella (Judy Kimball) and their Grandma Kurnitz (Ilona Pinzke), whose traumatic childhood in Germany, followed by more poverty and loss as a Jewish immigrant, has hardened her toward the world. "You don't survive in this world without being like steel," she tells the boys, jabbing them in the chest with her cane - but it is life with Grandma Kurnitz that the boys will have to learn to survive.
Cozily staged in the Bartell's Evjue Theatre, Madison Theatre Guild's production leaves nothing to be desired in the way of set, costumes and lighting. Against this background, cast members display fully realized characters and impressive New Yawk accents. As the money-laundering Uncle Louie, Ben Winter has a slick charm. Pinzke's portrayal of the terrifying matriarch is rich with buried emotion, and Kimball, as the fragile Aunt Bella, moves skillfully between desperate affection and surprising courage.
Despite the actors' excellent individual work, the show falls short of the tight pace and vibrant tension that Simon comedies require. Moments of true humor and pain seem too widely spaced to maintain momentum. Getting mired occasionally in its own dark themes, the production just misses the balancing point between tragedy and wit-laced resignation.