Some say that lightning doesn't strike twice.
Don't believe it.
Those who thought that no Stage West Community Theatre production of Neil Simon's drama Lost in Yonkers could match, much less top, the superb, award-winning 1997 version need to see the Yonkers playing weekends through April 17 in the Forum at that theater.
This show is as mesmerizing and engrossing as the first — and should be seen by anyone who loves and appreciates fine acting and direction, never mind if they've seen another version.
Set in a stifling 1941 Yonkers walk-up apartment, it's the story of the troubled Kurnitzes, a Jewish family who came from Germany decades earlier to escape persecution and encountered setbacks with few successes in their new homeland. There are a few laughs provided by some signature Neil Simon one-liners and the sadly comical Aunt Gert (Sheryl Depp), but other than that, it's mostly pretty heavy stuff.
Perhaps the current success is in part because director Dan Brijbag made his regular season debut at age 15 playing young Jay Kurnitz in the 1997 show and has been deeply involved in every facet of production at Stage West since then, so he knows the show and the theater from top to bottom.
Or maybe it's because that same young actor was coached by one of the best directors in the region, the multi award-winning Saul Leibner, who was at the helm of that first version.
It could also be the return of this area's answer to Hollywood's Helen Mirren, namely, the gifted Mollie Lutz, who reprised her HAMI Award-winning turn as the tough-as-nails Grandma Kurnitz, the stern, cane-swinging matriarch of the Kurnitz family.
Ms. Lutz is a fearless performer who does not flinch at slow, deliberate speech or emotional silence and can dominate a scene sitting in a low chair, calmly knitting with a bemused look on her face, while others shout and swirl around her. Grandma Kurnitz could easily be done as a one-dimensional harridan, but Ms. Lutz makes sure that playwright Simon's multi-faceted characterization comes through, making her seemingly cruel behavior understandable, if not altogether sympathetic.
What a performer, and how fortunate we are to be able to see her in an intimate venue like the 159-seat Forum.
She is well paired with Victoria Primosch, who makes her impressive dramatic debut (she's been in several musicals) as the chatty Bella, a childlike 35-year-old who lives with Grandma above the family's ice cream shop and absorbs much of Grandma's anger. Ms. Primosch assumes the accent, physical stance and fidgety moves that bring the socially inept and sexually frustrated Bella to life, and she handles this challenging role like a seasoned veteran.
Jacob Rice plays 13-year-old Arty with spunk and humor; Jonathan Linstad plays his brother, 15-year-old Jay, with seriousness and a maturity beyond his years. The boys have been left with their Grandma Kurnitz while their dad Eddie (played with touching gentleness by Paul Nessler) goes on the road to raise money to pay back the loan sharks before they whack him.
When the shifty Uncle Louis (a snarly, bouncy Sam Petricone) shows up unexpectedly, the family dynamic becomes even more clear and Grandma Kurnitz's arbitrary influence more starkly evident.
Some who see this show may be surprised and/or disappointed that it doesn't provide the usual Neil Simon belly-laughs and escapism. But those who relish a good story with well-wrought characters and characterizations will be more than satisfied with this show.