WINTER HARBOR — The last two times I’ve seen what I think is Neil Simon’s most hilarious and heartwarming play, “Lost in Yonkers,” both productions were directed by Bill Raiten of New Surry Theatre. Raiten pretty much lived the story as the child of Jewish immigrants growing up during the ’40s and ’50s in Brooklyn N.Y.
So, I confess to a little skepticism when I heard Cynthia Thayer of the Meetinghouse Theatre Lab was taking on this play for the spring production, which opens this weekend at Hammond Hall. Neither Thayer nor her cast appears to have any Yiddish-speaking grandmas in their family trees. How would these rural Yanks, relate to this story? Oy!
Still, Thayer and her Meetinghouse ensembles have worked wonders with such diverse fare as “Rabbit Hole” and last year’s “The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-Time,” so when I went to visit last weekend’s rehearsal, I was determined to keep an open mind.
I walked in on the dinner scene where Bella, a sweet but simple-minded daughter in the Kurnitz family, is trying to tell her siblings — brothers Louie, a small-time gangster, and the recently widowed Eddie, their neurotic sister Gert and the steely matriarch, Grandma Kurnitz — that she has met a fella she wants to marry.
At first glance, it’s hard to buy that Cathy Johnson, the tall, handsome woman playing this part, would be so thrilled to have a semi-illiterate boyfriend who lives with his mom. But watching her face at first animated with excitement, crumble as her family rips into this tender new relationship like a team of chain-saw murderers is simply heartbreaking. She is Bella.
Johnson, who says this is her first major role, also is equally adept at pulling laughs. In another scene where she interacts with her two teenage nephews, she is still fragile, but very funny, as she urges — no demands — that they have ice cream sundaes before a dreaded dinner with Grandma.
“I had no idea how big a part Bella is, when I agreed to play her,” Johnson says, admitting it was seriously daunting. “But my fellow actors have given me so much to work with, it’s been great fun getting to know her, be her.”
Another surprise is Brent Hutchins, perhaps best known for performances of his own play “Closer to Home” in which he plays a variety of Downeast characters. While he still looks more like a bearded lumberman than a city slicker bagman (something he says he intends to change for the performance), he’s got the pugnacious swagger of Louie down pat. He also does a credible New Yawk accent for which he credits some formative years his family spent on Long Island, where his dad followed a job.
The ensemble’s other members, who play the bereaved Eddie (Marc Bellenoit), the air-gulping sister Gert (Stacie Young) and Eddie’s son Jay (Daniel Buswell, also do swell jobs with the accent and in understanding their characters and the peculiar dynamic of this complicated family.
The boy playing Jay’s younger brother Arty was at baseball practice that day, and Cheri Magnello, who plays Grandma Kurnitz, was also missing from this rehearsal, but Thayer made a fine stand-in for her.
Thayer, herself, is perhaps the biggest surprise of all in this production. Having chosen this play for the spring show, last fall, and selected her cast, she had just started rehearsals in March when her husband, Bill, took gravely ill. She spent the three weeks before he on died April 1 at his bedside while her cast carried on without its director.
Well, not quite.
“She’d text us ideas and suggestions from the hospital,” says Hutchins. Most of the cast members, had had some acting experience, and Mr. Hutchins has had considerable directing experience as well.
“I chose this play because it was such fun, had characters one could really sink their teeth into, and was surprisingly pertinent.” says Thayer.
“Losing Bill has been hard and I’m still struggling,” she acknowledges, adding that despite it all she never considered dropping out or cancelling the performance.
“But I was worried when I came back, how far behind we were going to be,” she says. “I was thrilled to discover they all had developed their characters on their own and with each other’s help. We were right on schedule.”
I don’t want to jinx this, but of the many rehearsals I’ve attended this new year, “Lost in Yonkers” seemed the most prepared a week before opening — no calling for lines, confusion about blocking and a strong, sense of self-confidence throughout.
Yet another surprise of this year’s Meetinghouse production is, the fact that there are five weekends in May this year, so audiences can choose between two weekends to see the show.
“Lost in Yonkers” opens this Friday, May 17, at 7 p.m. with more evening shows scheduled for May 18, 24-25 and at 2 p.m. on May 19 and 26. For more info, call 963-2569 to reserve tickets or go to schoodicartsforall.org.