Discovering the meaning of family at Appleseed Productions

Brothers Jay (Ethan Zoeckler) and Arty (Gabe DiGenova) unhappily stay at their grandma's. Photo: Darian Sundberg Lost in Yonkers  Who Appleseed Productions Where 116 West Glen Ave., Syracuse When Feb. 15 - March 2 Tickets $18; $15 seniors and students; $12 Senior Sundays Review by Josh Austin

Not everyone loves his grandma.

Lost In Yonkers, Neil Simon’s heart-wrenching, Pulitzer Prize-winning play, examines a family on fire, a chaotic group of opposites that have all suffered loss, and continues to squirm at each other’s hands.

The play, which won the Tony Award for best play in 1991 and spawned the 1993 film of the same title, is an intimate affair. A saddening experience, and one that—when finished—doesn’t necessarily leave viewers happy. Although the characters contently exit, the sorrow still looms—and it should. Simon’s play is a cathartic family journal, one told through the eyes of two boys who are thrust into the fervent dysfunction.

Through engaging direction (CJ Young) and a superb cast, Appleseed Production’s Lost in Yonkers is set ablaze.

It starts with laborious dialogue, speaking to the treacherous legend that Grandma Kurnitz has become. After all, she’s described as “a woman who never let’s her kids cry,” who no one wants to kiss because kissing her is like kissing leathery ice. There’s the myth of a cane and a brutal hand: someone who has caused her kids to have serious issues. Simply put: she’s a woman who does not feel.

The tension thrives, so much so that when the time is getting close for Grandma’s entrance, it’s unbearable (one audience member whispered, “I can’t wait to see her”). And when she does enter, it’s a relief. Instantly, we meet a stodgy, slow-moving woman with a too much pride, albeit no heart.

Set in 1942, the nine-month-long story, filtered through the eyes of Jay (Ethan Zoeckler) and his younger brother Arty (Gabe DiGenova), is a classic coming-of-age tale. Darian Sundberg’s set was intricate and lavish, a house that captured the essence of the 1940s, and echoes the sentiments of Lost in Yonkers’ characters.

Colorful and cheery, it’s not a home, but a place for one of Grandma’s daughters Bella (Pamela Kelley), to live-in, where she has some semblance of womanhood, and for Grandma to simply occupy her room (though it’s Grandma’s house).

In this production, the growth of the narrators falls to the backseat, as the real coming-of-age solidly centers on the adults.

Grandma (Marcia Mele) is cold. A determined Jewish refugee from Germany, she’s suffered a lot. After the death of two of her children, and the constant rehashing by the family of her beating as a child, Grandma has chose to be venomous, to not smile. Mele has captured this harsh façade, one that is bent on teaching her children survival.

“Big boys don’t cry,” she says.

Louie (Ty Marshal) lectures the boys on being tough in 'Lost in Yonkers.'Photo: Darian Sundberg

What is she teaching? Her family is broken. Her son Eddie (Scott Pflanz) who cries is viewed as weak—no matter that he leaves his kids with her to go earn money to pay off debt. Her other son, Louie (Ty Marshal), is looked upon as the only survivor of the family. And, he’s a bagman for the mob, although Marshal champions his role effectively. As if unaffected by his mother’s loveless seclusion, Louie is the liveliest of the bunch and even attests that his toughness stems from the tough love. Marshal had big shoes to fill: The role was originated by Kevin Spacey (who won the Tony for best featured actor) on Broadway. The actor carried his own, making Louie an endearing comedic highlight, especially capturing that Bugsy-esque ‘40s gangster, “You don’t know nothing.”

Grandma’s two daughters, Gert (Aubry Panek) and Bella, are more misguided. Gert, a respiratory disaster, speaks while breathing in, a severe nervous habit when around her mother.

Though it’s Bella that captures the show. Bella, at 30 years old, still has the mind of a child. Her brutal arias of self are haunting. Her bouts with her mother only intensify the feelings for Bella—her need for attention, her desperation for love. She’s starving. Kelley is unwavering in the role, grasping at her hands like a nervous child, excitingly hoping for a bit of conversation. Kelley delivers the climax of the show with an innocence-shattering boom, one that sticks with you.

Simon’s play is a true testament of a shattered, lost family, one that might just be beyond repair, though  the characters don’t seem to think so.

The play also makes you wonder: Is it ever okay to not love your grandma?