lost in yonkers 88.
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Following the controversy last year over a staged reading of the play Seven Jewish Childrenâ€š Theater J artistic director Ari Roth thought the community needed a play that would allow for some healing.
To that end, he broke with the Theater J tradition of performing "a good depressing autumnal play," and chose to put on Neil Simon's prize-winning Lost in Yonkers for an extended run.
Not that the production is pure comedy , in fact, many of the laughs it provides are intensified by serving to break up moments of deep tension , but it does represent a lighter inflection of the crushing family drama genre. And perhaps most importantly, it offers a plotline that's ultimately redemptive.
"I felt this was what we needed as a community, as Jewsâ€¦ with us always at each other's throats," explained Roth, whose Theater J is located in the Jewish Community Center in downtown Washington.
He added that the greater societal context was also significant in his choice, with the current economic crisis and what he called a "rift" in the Jewish community following the elections of US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu positioning his theater "on the seam" of those various forces.
"It was our job in this slot to bring us together," he said. "We needed a family play with hardened characters, hardened hearts, [from which] we needed to create some reconciliation."
That family is distinctly Jewish - many are the references to Germany's treatment of the Jews as World War II grinds on in the background - but it is one greatly influenced by and enmeshed in the American experience.
TANA HICKEN, who plays the biting matriarch named only "Grandma," pointed out in a conversation with the audience following a recent production that the script makes clear that the family candy shop is not closed in accordance with Shabbat laws.
"The store stays open on Saturday. This is an immigrant family that has assimilated," she noted.
Still, Hicken's tight portrayal of a Yekke task-master who suffered through German intolerance and strict child-rearing in the early 20th century, only to impose cold discipline on her children and grandchildren to devastating effect, retained enough of the Jewish spirit for an audience member to identify her grandmother in the performance.
"My grandmother was a lot like her," the audience member said during the talk. "I understand her a little better now."
And yet, the at-times overwrought family dynamic on stage, helpfully anchored in this production by the strong performances of Hicken and Holly Twyford as her simple-minded daughter Bella, also conveys a universal experience.
Its appeal certainly goes beyond a parochial audience. Indeed, Theater J is not the only playhouse to stage a Neil Simon piece right now. A Broadway production of Brighton Beach Memoirs recently staged to strong reviews in New York.
Roth suggested that, as opposed to periods of societal "ascendancy" when plays should provoke audiences to examine the difficult underside of reality, the current zeitgeist of "economic dislocation" had created a need for something more positive.
"We're living through such tough times and this was a play that was set in tough times [where] there's hardness and tragedy," he noted, but also, "the people warm to each other, they change."
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