Theater: Theater J, 1529 16th Street NW
Metro Stops: Dupont Circle – Red line or U Street/Cardozo-Green line. Directions here.
Cost: All tickets are half price for people 35 and under (and the Sunday shows are only $30 to begin with). Goldstar has tickets starting at $12.50
Rating: 4/5 Starving Artists
In 1991, a new play premiered in DC, by a well known playwright. The play received mediocre to awful reviews. The chief drama critic for the Post, Lloyd Rose, wrote that the playwright "has been writing plays for 30 years and he still can't handle the basic elements of dramaturgy." The play then went to Broadway, where it continued to receive some mediocre reviews. Later that year, it also won the Pulitzer Prize. It ran on Broadway for two more very successful years, and was made into a film in 1993, staring Richard Dreyfuss. I think that this is an important lesson for us critics. Sometimes we have no idea what we are talking about (maybe most of the time for me). That play, btw, was Lost in Yonkers, which is being staged in DC for the first time since its 1991 debut. Theater J rolls out the red carpet for Neil Simon's triumphant return, in the hopes of redeeming the play in the eyes of Washingtonians, and I think they may just have done it. The production is, over-all, very strong. There are a few really fun performances, and a strong vision for the design. Tana Hicken and Holly Twyford are particularly noteworthy as Grandma and Bella. Twyford's performance is full of joy and warmth, and Hicken's presence on stage is enthralling. It was fun to see them reunited, as we enjoyed them both in Studio's Road to Mecca (back before I was blogging). And I thought that the 16 year old Max Tallsman was really great as the young Max, who, along with his brother Jay (Kyle Schliefer), is the central character of the play.
There were a lot of really interesting design decisions. I thought the set was wonderful. Daniel Conway does a great job of recreating Grandma's Yonkers apartment, in which the play is set. There were a lot of very subtle touches – like having a breeze come through an open widow and rustle the curtains – that really brought the environment to life. And the sepia color scheme gave everything the feeling of being set in a sort of timeless past.
I was really intrigued by Director Jerry Whiddon's decision to have the actors use some old time comedy timing that was reminiscent of an Abbot and Costello sketch. It's hard to explain what I mean here, but it's a kind of old fashioned timing and over the top delivery of which the Marx Brothers would have been proud. It seems Whiddon had two choices: either to go for a more lifelike bent like this, or to give it a more classic comedy feel like this (sorry for the high school production in that link, but it was the best example I could find). Either would be ok, but his route does not do too much to help you connect with the characters. Perhaps this style is somewhat implied by the setting of the play and its banter-ish dialogue, but I was still struck by how strongly they went in this direction. I'm not sure if I loved it, but I was impressed with the consistency of the approach. It was used appropriately throughout.
I'm not sure why the show got so thoroughly panned in '91. It's an interesting little piece, though perhaps a little predictable. It has some interesting characters with a fair amount of depth and humor. I can't tell you exactly why the critics didn't get the show in 1991, but I'm glad that it's back so we can give it a second chance.