Tuesday, April 3, 2012
Theater review: Lost in Yonkers at Richardson Theatre Centre
For all of its technical merits, Lost in Yonkers fell apart in the performance.
When I walked into the theater at Richardson Theatre Centre Friday night for their production of Lost in Yonkers (playing through April 15), I felt comfortable and at home. Not only was the set like walking into a weird amalgamation of my grandmother and great-grandmother’s living room, the auditorium was like many others I had performed in myself over the years. Not the cavernous space of an opera house nor the tight, intimate space of a tiny black box. Like the old story, it was just right.
The grandmotherly set was incredibly well decorated and detailed, all the way down to my grandmother’s spoon collection stage left. Richardson Theatre Centre must have a great props library in order to decorate a set so perfectly. The space was used very well, having appropriate furniture for the setting but not obstructing lanes of traffic on stage.
The only problem with the set was the lack of coverage above it. With no borders above the set, the light blue glare of the backstage lights peeked over and shadows moving through them were distracting.
The second thing I noticed were the pre-show music selections. With Bing Crosby’s “Swinging on a Star” kicking off the pre-show, a collection of 1940s and 50s classics set the mood and prepared the audience for the time warp to World War II era New York. Excited by the elements set forth before the show, I was prepared for an entertaining night of theatre. Unfortunately, first impressions are not always correct.
The story of Lost in Yonkers is the story of two boys trying to survive a year with their life-hardened, abusive grandmother and colorful aunts and uncle. Because the boys are the focus of the story, they must be the strongest performers. In this performance they were not. I don’t know whether it was poor direction, lack of experience, or simply not enough rehearsal time that brought stiff, flat performances, not only from Preston Semenuk and Riley Niksich but from most of the performers.
The audience did laugh a few times but that could be attributed to Neil Simon’s writing but rarely from the performers. Riley Niksich as Arty, the wise-cracking younger boy, got by on his cuteness and relied on it to pull some humor out of a confrontation with his grandmother. However, “crazy” Aunt Bella, played by Robin Coulange, frantically moved about the stage so often she appeared lost and uncertain with no real purpose for movement. For a comedy, the theater was almost eerily silent for most of the performance.
There were nearly no emotional rises or falls, everything was flat but not monotone. An example of this problem comes early in the play. Aunt Bella comes from her mother’s room crying in what should be a hilarious gushing, indecipherable blubber which her brother Eddie must interpret for the boy and the audience to understand. This was presented as a barely audible whimper Eddie could only repeat what was whispered in his ear.
Line readings were little better than a simple recitation with little or misplaced inflections. Overall, the show had the feeling of a rehearsal and not a polished and ready performance. It seemed to be enough that the actors had memorized their lines and remembered their blocking.
There were demonstrations of character, the best coming from Janette L. Oswald and Brendon Perrotta. The shining jewel of this performance was Janette L. Oswald as Grandma Kurnitz. Her performance as the dangerous, hardhearted grandmother was wonderful and nuanced. She could disrupt the other characters with a glare. She had one of the few instances a line elicited a laugh as she stared down Arty, who had just paid her a “left-handed” compliment. Her response, “This is a sneaky one” had the biggest laugh of the night.
Brendon Perrotta offered line readings better than most in the performance but suffered from the same flat performance. However, he did portray his character better than the others as Uncle Louie, a slick talking young man involved in some undefined organized crime. I could believe him as New York mafioso but the scene with him intimidating the boys about his black bag came off merely uncomfortable and forced. It was as if Perrotta himself didn’t want to threaten Arty and Jay and was only doing what he was directed to get past this uncomfortable part of the scene.
For all of its technical merits, Lost in Yonkers at Richardson Theatre Centre fell apart in the performance. I appreciate the effort put into creating the production and we all must remember that we create these things out of love and passion. However, sometimes the package with the prettiest wrapping doesn’t contain the best gift.
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