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Laughter in the Dark

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LOST IN YONKERS

Royal George Theatre Center

THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH

Goodman Theatre

"The one place in the world you're safe is with your family," says a character in Neil Simon's almost perfect comedy-drama Lost in Yonkers. But if the family--yours, or the institution--isn't safe, what then? Like the best of Simon's other work (The Odd Couple, the Brighton Beach trilogy), Lost in Yonkers is comedy driven by desperate fear that the security, affection, and sense of place we associate with family are in imminent danger of crumbling forever. The witty jokes that salt Simon's script are laughter in the dark.

Set in 1942 ("Be careful, it's my heart," Bing Crosby croons on the radio) in the Yonkers home of a German Jewish immigrant, Lost in Yonkers is governed by dire circumstances: war, genocide, criminal violence, disease and decay and death everywhere. Into this world--such a world!--arrive Jay and Arty Kurnitz, two teenagers whose father, Eddie, has been driven deep into debt by the protracted fatal illness of his wife and can no longer support them. (Among other things he's being pressed for repayment by a loan shark, and fears the repercussions if he can't make good on the loan.) While Eddie's away selling scrap metal on the road he must leave his sons in the care of their grandmother, from whom Eddie has been estranged for 15 years. Grandma Kurnitz isn't thrilled about the situation either: "I had six children," she barks. "I don't need more again." But family is family; besides, Eddie's sister Bella pressures Grandma to let the kids stay. Bella wants the company--mentally immature following a childhood bout with scarlet fever, she's been stuck all her life in her mother's rambling, gloomy old home, locked in a cycle of mutual dependence and resentment.

By the time Bella and Eddie's two other siblings--Louie, a small-time hood with a bagful of Jimmy Cagney imitations, and good-natured but weak-willed Gert--arrive on the scene, the plot is simmering. Poor Bella is infatuated with a mentally handicapped movie-theater usher but knows her mother would never approve of marriage; meanwhile Jay and Arty spend their nights searching for the hidden fortune that miserly, barbed-wire-hearted Grandma refuses to share with Eddie, hoping against hope that Grandma doesn't know what they're doing. Grandma knows. Grandma knows everything.

Neither of these narratives is in itself enough to keep a play going. But Simon masterfully interweaves them--and grounds the action in the development of the characters, leading to Grandma's eventual softening--to provide a portrait of considerable power, as the family faces a conflict much more alarming than the war in Europe: the possibility of its own implosion from the pressure of its members' opposing desires and their inability to confront each other. Only the final scene, in which Simon resolves the situation in comforting but not particularly convincing fashion, keeps Lost in Yonkers from being perfect instead of almost.

But the play's shortcoming is more than made up for by Michael Leavitt's superb staging, which mines all the complexity that Simon suggests in the observations of his wisecracking underage alter ego, Arty. Benefiting enormously from the scenic and lighting design of Broadway veterans Santo Loquasto and Tharon Musser--Loquasto's living-room set is a model of theatrical realism, with remarkable spatial depth and detail--Leavitt's direction shows a huge improvement over last summer's Six Degrees of Separation; though Six Degrees is the better, tougher play, the tightly knit acting here makes Lost in Yonkers the superior show. Leavitt meticulously mines the heartaches of Simon's characters: dour and defensive Grandma (played for all her pride and paranoia by the estimable Marji Bank); anxious Eddie (David Darlow in a refreshingly unmannered performance); sarcastic sourball Louie (the fine Joseph Guzaldo, too long absent from the Chicago stage); and gawky 15-year-old Jay (the excellent Peter Regis-Civetta), caught between a kid's naivete and an incipient adult's outrage at injustice. Most affecting are the story's parallel ugly ducklings--adolescent Arty, played with complete credibility by Hollywood actor Grant Gelt, and sweet but slightly off kilter Bella, whose stifled longing is unforgettably etched by film actress Karla Tamburrelli. This sensitive, funny production is one of the best commercial shows to hit town in years.

Written the same year that Lost in Yonkers takes place, Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth also looks at a family in crisis. The family is humankind, the clan (in Wilder's Eurocentric, Judeo-Christian view) of Adam and Eve. The world's first man and woman--each 20,000 years old, but not too badly off considering the wear and tear--are renamed George and Maggie Antrobus (a pun on the Greek anthropos); their maid is the temperamental temptress Lily (as in Lilith) Sabina; and their son is Henry, though a large "C" on his forehead, usually hidden under a baseball cap, is a reminder of his original name, Cain.

This nice, average family of eastern-seaboard Republicans, close kin to the small-town New Englanders who populate Wilder's earlier Our Town, have plenty of problems. Every time you look, they're facing another disaster: an ice age, a flood, a depression, a war, even an outbreak of ptomaine poisoning among the actors. For the Antrobuses and their friends are merely actors--all the world's a stage--performing a play in front of an audience whom they have no trouble breaking character to address. Our Town was just a play too--the Stage Manager unself-consciously informed the cast in full view of the audience whenever it was time for a scene change--but that play ran smoothly. In The Skin of Our Teeth the actors are stressed nearly to the breaking point: Sabina frequently interrupts her dialogue with complaints about the script, Mr. Fitzpatrick the director is seldom seen and rarely obeyed, and young Henry nearly murders his father while playing an argument scene with him.

Wilder's once-radical experiment with the play-within-a-play format is hardly startling today; and his presentation of human history as domestic soap opera, even with its whimsically anachronistic distortions of time and space, now seems rather quaint. What keeps the play strong, interestingly, is not its artistic innovation but its moral conservatism: its belief in the fragile but enduring strength of the family in its individual, institutional, and biological forms. At the time of its premiere, Mary McCarthy sneered that the play "affirms the eternity of capitalism," and there's truth in that comment; but the sincerity of Wilder's optimistic long view has a force that more sophisticated works lack, and it's helped guarantee the play's longevity long after its theatrical style went out of date.

It's also the element whose absence is most keenly felt in Goodman Theatre's only middlingly effective 50th-anniversary revival. Under David Petrarca's direction, the play-within-a-play structure comes off as gimmicky, because the actors use it as a way to make fun of the problems they're portraying. Tongue is planted firmly in cheek throughout--not the way Wilder intended, to lighten his earnest preachings, but in a mood of sarcastic postmodern skepticism. When the actors break character to speak directly to the viewers--urging them to fight the ice age, for instance, by passing their chairs up to the stage to stoke a fire--nothing makes us believe that these actors, regardless of the parts they're playing, mean what they say. The stakes are not high; the sense of crisis that motivated Wilder, who wrote the work in the middle of global war with memories of devastating depression not too distant, is absent here.

There are two exceptions: Jacqueline Williams's apocalyptic fortune-teller is dynamic and passionate. So is the tormented, raging Henry of Isaiah Washington, whose assignment to the role demonstrates how politically correct "color-blind" casting has been replaced by unorthodox color-sensitive casting. Washington is black, while Richard Poe, who plays Mr. Antrobus, is white. Since Pat Bowie, playing Mrs. Antrobus, is black, the notion of a white father having a black son is feasible. The audience is invited not to ignore Washington's race but to notice the new dimension it helps him bring to the role; the feud between Henry and his father takes on blistering new force, as Washington faces off with Poe in the play's emotionally charged climax: "What have you got to lose?" sneers Henry, speaking to his father amid the debris of a long and ruinous war. "Tear everything down. . . . I'm not going to be a part of any peacetime of yours. . . . Being a good boy and a good sheep, like all the stinking ideas you get out of your books? Oh, no. I'll make a world, and I'll show you." In this postconflagration confrontation, as nowhere else in the Goodman production, The Skin of Our Teeth reasserts itself as a flawed, idiosyncratic, but still potent American classic.

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