Review: Strong performances headline 'Lost in Yonkers'

By Thomas C. Hardy

Special to the Journal-World

Between an engaging script a very talented actress, Kansas University’s production of “Lost in Yonkers” serves to remind us why we go to the theater: to be lied to in a beautiful and profound way.

Under the direction of Jack Wright, the lie (story) told to us in KU’s production chronicles the evolution of a family during times of social change. The plot follows two adolescent boys in the year 1942. With their mother deceased and their father in debt, they are forced to live with their grandmother while their father travels around selling scrap metal to support the war effort.

Grandmother Kurnitz (Erica Fox) is a hunk of scrap metal herself — steeled by family deaths and injuries, she is cold and unrelenting. Jay (Alex Roschitz) and Arty (Drew Cheek) play the children, and they begin the play by bemoaning the grandmother’s cold disposition. She lost a husband and two children in pre-war Germany and has been zealous in her distribution of punishment and foul-tasting mustard soup ever since. She is a no-nonsense survivor.

And so the two boys must endure her Draconian rules for 10 months until their father makes enough money to pay off his loan shark. Their airheaded aunt, Bella (Marilyn Haines), also lives with Grandma Kurnitz, and much of the plot explores the new chemistry of family created by the two boys and their extended-stay hosts.

Bella embodies Grandmother Kurnitz’s opposite: bubbly, tempestuous, a romantic. Her part is brilliantly written, and Haines plays it exceptionally. Bella often finds herself on the stage with the boys, her gullibility prey to their mature wit. Haines plays the part with such fullness, such energetic exactness and such depth of character that she makes you believe that you know, that you knew all along, more about Bella than you could possibly learn in two hours of theater.

Most of the other actors do a fine job. Jake L. Smith plays Bella’s brother Louie, who spouts loose-cannon quips like, “Nothin’ sweeter than a little danger, boys.” Drew Cheek offers some funny moments; he and Alex Roschitz’s boyish characters are the straight men amongst a cast of jesters.

With cool colors shining from stage right and warm colors flooding in from stage left, the lighting does more than light. When an actor looks to their right, they take on a cooler skin tone than when they look to their left. The sound is just a little quiet, and the costuming and makeup fill their roles without drawing attention to themselves.

Director Jack Wright brings these elements together to create a play focused on the characters and script. Bella dreams of creating a life for herself, and she fights against the odds to secure acceptance from her grandmother. With Jay and Arty in the house, the polarized characters of Bella and Grandma Kurnitz find a middle ground, or at least a medium through which they can interact, to resolve long-standing conflicts. With Haines leading the cast, it’s hard not to be deeply interested in the generational struggles that plague this family and the many others that it may represent.

“Lost in Yonkers” has one showing left, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, at the Crafton-Preyer Theatre.


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