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  • Nate Adams

'Lost In Yonkers' review: Neil Simon classic beautifully put together at The Dio


Courtesy of Michele Anliker Photography

 

Neil Simon’s “Lost in Yonkers” means a-lot to the folks over at The Dio. It was the first show co-founders Steve DeBruyne and Matt Tomich mounted when they began their dinner theater voyage 10 years ago. It was a production constructed on a scrappy budget with lighting fixtures that only turned on and off, and ticket sales that wouldn’t cut it by the venue’s standards today. While I didn’t see the last iteration, I can attest the current, lively production of “Lost In Yonkers,” which just opened, is emblematic of what’s made The Dio endure for all these years: they have a terrific creative braintrust, and maintain integrity in every piece they produce. Here, the heart of Simon’s award winning play, about family turmoil and grief, remains sound and it leaves audience members hungry for more (both figuratively and literally as the dinner served beforehand, which includes the mouth watering fried chicken, never disappoints). 


Though Simon has remained a beloved icon in the theater world and his “Lost in Yonkers” has won a Pulitzer Prize, the show itself hardly turns up any season announcements. In a sense, it’s understandable; a dated show with the occasional off-color remark and hard-to-stomach family relationships doesn’t exactly scream commercial appeal. But that’s what makes The Dio’s production all the more inviting. They’ve embraced what the show stands for and have found a commendable group of performers to bring Simon’s beautiful story to life.  


The play unfolds over a 10 month period circa 1942 in a cramped two bedroom apartment above the Kurnitz’ Kandy Store, a neighborhood staple known for its candy and ice cream selection in Yonkers N.Y. There resides the strict Grandma Kurnitz (Oliver Hayden-Moore - delivering an appropriately sentimental performance) who doesn’t have the most optimistic outlook on modern society and life as a whole, often practicing tough love as opposed to the nurturing figure grandsons Jay (Dylan Benson) and Arty (Vaan Otto) had before their mom died from cancer. They’ve recently relocated to Grandma’s tight apartment while dad (DeBruyne - pulling double duties in front of and behind the stage) works as a scrap salesman to pay off the loan he took out to help his wife unsuccessfully fend off her sickness. 


It’s a culture shock for the 12 and 15 year olds as Grandma Kurnitz runs a tight ship with no room for funny business. She emigrated from Berlin, 35 years ago, has lost her husband, two of six children, and endured a plethora of anti-Semetic attacks throughout her 70 years. Nothing phases her and any hints of vulnerability puts you on her radar. A slippery slope her daughter, Bella (played with a wide range of integral emotions by Luciana Piazza) tries to weather. Likewise for the wily Uncle Louis (Donovan Leary - a standout) who’s shady mobster business dealings puts everyone in an awkward spot. Nobody knows exactly what it is he does, but you know it can’t be morally grounded. But as dad says early in the show: “There’s nothing like family,” and it’s evident Simon’s work has remained timeless on that principle. 


Indeed, watching the complex family dynamic transpire is rich and rewarding. As the whimsical Aunt Bella, the show’s beating heart, Piazza underscores the character’s desperate longing for compassion and romance. When she’s not attending to her mother, who, despite her stern demeanor, doesn’t want to be alone, Bella gets lost in the world of cinema. Often coming home raving about the recent picture she’s just watched or the cute usher she has determined will be her future husband. But there’s something about Bella, however, that always seems off. Her memory is foggy and the occasional angry and spontaneous outbursts render Arty and Jay speechless. Simon, being the gifted writer he was, is able to explore these elements without being insensitive and also finds a way of plucking the humor from how absurd the action comes across. None more so than for Amy Schumacher’s Aunt Gert, a character riddled with a condition that causes her to inhale profusely before finishing sentences. It shouldn’t work, but here, in this context, it does. And it’s funny. 


Same goes for Leary’s hilarious performance as Uncle Louie, a wise ass anyone can instantly relate to. We all know the Uncle Louie type, with his cadence, physical dominance, and half-baked life lessons about finding your “moxie,” but it’s borderline spooky how close to reality Leary came in shaping this character for The Dio stage. It was like visiting an old relative. Otto and Benson have a fun repertoire as they absorb all the madness that’s happening around them and DeBruyne (alongside excellent scenic work by Tomich) gives them plenty of leash to make the space feel bigger than it appears. It can sometimes feel a bit overcrowded when everyone’s on stage, but considering the apartment isn’t that massive, it actually amplifies the family tension as events rise to a boil. Specifically during a pivotal Act II moment between Bella and her mother that could be cut with a knife.


It’s a delicate juggling act between DeBruyne and this company, who must capture the beautiful yet complicated nuances of this family unit and pull out the script's thematic weight without losing Simon’s concise rhythm. In that regard, The Dio’s “Lost In Yonkers” manages to stick the landing, aided by usual collaborators, Norma Polk and Eileen Obradvoich, who’s reliable costume and prop work have become a mainstay of the theater’s solid reputation through the last 10 years. Chloe Grisa’s wig design also deserves a shout-out. 


It’s evident The Dio has come a long way since their first season and this current production of “Lost In Yonkers” serves as their full circle moment. You can see the passion beaming from the creative ingenuity on the stage, and the dinner served prior is always an added bonus. If ever there was a time to see this show, or you’ve never seen it before, The Dio has you covered. As they have in the past 10 years and will for countless more to come. 


THE DIO’s production of LOST IN YONKERS runs through July 9th. Reservations, which includes a three course meal and non alcoholic beverage, can be purchased here




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