Neil Simon's once infallible reputation as the Gandhi of commercial Broadway comedy rests on a perilous precipice. Back in the days when Sonny and Cher ruled the airwaves, every Simon play or film was anticipated as a major event to be heralded on the cover of Time magazine. His Odd Couple was our most ubiquitous American comedy until he desecrated it with a sex-change operation (1985's The Female Odd Couple). It was around this time that the mavens declared him the official purveyor of passé sitcoms.
The Cleveland Play House is doing its share to restore his reputation by presenting a well-crafted interpretation of one of his most fully realized works. Along with his 1972 film The Heartbreak Kid and the aforementioned Odd Couple, the 1991 Pulitzer Prize-winning Lost in Yonkers shows the writer at the top of his form. In this play, the humanity of his work attempts to break free from the clichéd cocoon that encased his earlier works.
The play explores how a how a tough-minded German matriarch's implacable discipline and withholding of affection emotionally stunts each member of her family in a different manner.
Simon is clearly influenced by Arthur Miller's domestic variations on Greek tragedy and Tennessee Williams' menagerie of stunted butterflies. The problem is that Simon can't or won't let go of his need for comedic healing. So Yonkers plays as if Willie Loman's suicide is just a practical joke, and Laura's candles relight in the nick of time to get her a Saturday night date.
In spite of its unfortunate inconsistencies of tone, Yonkers remains the playwright's boldest theatrical painting. The play is filled with vividly etched characters, and it's a model of craftsmanship — beautifully constructed with an old-world quality missing from today's MTV-influenced theater.
Director Michael Bloom has taken advantage of the script's strong points: casting (ideally mating actor to the role), environment (recreating a 1940s Yonkers apartment suitable for an aging matriarch) and realized characters (detailing minute nuances of costume, accents and movement). Bloom displays the same loving affection for Simon's work as he did for Williams in his memorable production of The Glass Menagerie in 2008.
Pacing is an often-overlooked quality that can ruin an otherwise fine production. But Bloom finds the right rhythm to allow the play to unfold naturally. He also diminishes the play's faults by smoothing the transitions from comedy to tragedy in a masterly fashion.
In this play, the sense of family and period is essential. Each actor brings some unique attribute to build the family portrait. Somehow Sara Surrey, as the damaged Bella, manages with the simple symbol of unevenly drooping socks, to delineate a whole lifetime of helplessness. Rosemary Prinz's Grandma's refusal to give in to physical pain reveals a lifetime of steely containment.
With more capable productions such as this, Simon need never fear passing into oblivion.