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OdysseyStage Review: Lost In Yonkers Utterly Loses Its Way, Thanks to Poor Directorial Decisions

May 15, 2003 - Chapel Hill, NC:


With a new production of Neil Simon's Lost in Yonkers, we come to the question of faithlessness.

This semi-autobiographical play, equal parts comedy of frustration and O'Neill-like drama of familial angst, won Simon a well-deserved Pulitzer in 1991. Like his young protagonists Artie and Jay, the playwright was himself abandoned by his father, albeit in a much less loving fashion. Whereas Simon's father simply disappeared, the Kurnitz boys (stand-ins for Simon and his older brother Danny) are left with their fearsome old grandmother and her emotionally stifled daughter Bella, so father Eddie can clear his extensive debts. Although Bella emerges as the surprising heroine of Lost in Yonkers, the play belongs largely to Artie and Jay.

The current OdysseyStage production (May 16-18 at St. Thomas More School in Chapel Hill, NC) then constitutes an act of hubris breathtaking in its arrogance. Its director, faced with a dearth of young boys, has come up with what she (baldly, and with no apparent irony) calls the "brilliant solution" of re-making Artie and Jay as "Marty" and "Rae," and in the process carelessly ruining what may be Simon's finest work for the stage.

This bit of self-regarding chutzpah would be suspect even in the production of a classical piece by some long-dead playwright; but since Simon is very much with us, it's a notion of astonishing insensitivity. (It may also be a breach of contract.) The ethical offense would be egregious enough in itself, but the fact that Sheryle Criswell, the perpetrator of this crime against an author's intent, is herself a playwright renders it indefensible.

I've seen productions that made (more or less) acceptable use of good performers in minor roles through creative sexual realignment, but neutering the leads is something that leaves me flummoxed on the playwright's behalf. Criswell compounds this by changing one character's AGE as well: thus, 13½-year old Artie is now ten. That there is as much difference between a 10-year old and an adolescent as there is between teenaged girls and boys seems not to have occurred to her. "Marty's" wisecracks, which in the mouth of adolescent Artie carry hints of a budding comedian, now merely sound unbearably precocious.

Further, this transgender manipulation creates superfluous sexual tension and blunts emotional impact. When the boys' gangster uncle Louie now begins undressing in front of girls, telling them that from now on they're to "bunk up together," a sickly frisson is evident that could well be the subject of another entire play. The unease is hardly dissipated by Criswell's giving Louie the out-of-character riposte "You take me too literally," and consigning the girls to sleep in their grandmother's parlor chair.

Similarly, when "Rae" expresses "her" despairing anger at the mother's death, the effectiveness is automatically blunted. (It isn't much help that Dani Nowell exhibits no discernable trace of hysteria.) However sexist this sounds, the moment makes much less of an impact because it's a teenaged girl and not a young adolescent male who's weeping. Teenaged boys reign in their real emotions under the misguided (and socially sanctioned) notion that tears are un-masculine; the emotional pressure that leads to Jay's outburst, then, is what bestows such terrible pain to the moment.

Having quite literally emasculated Simon's play, Criswell then makes what's left unpalatable. Because of her venue's wretched acoustics, she has amplified her actors by means of highly visible and distracting head-mikes which themselves are hardly free from interference, especially when the actors are grouped together. Criswell and her costumers saddle "Marty" with overalls under her smocks and pajamas, and the set designer has placed a patently modern convertible sofa squarely in the center of the action.

The acting follows suit. Megan Mazzocchi's Bella has a pleasing touch of Ann Miller about the face and some good ideas, but something about the performance just seems OFF somehow. David Dollar plays Eddie's first, crucial scene like a martinet, aloof and angry when he should be operating under the twin strains of nervous energy and paternal love. John Paul Middlesworth is a welcome respite as Louie, assured and completely in character, even when the extra lines he's been given are not. Sylvia Dante's Grandma conveys a towering presence and young Mary Clare Mazzocchi's "Marty" shows good timing and inflection, but she doesn't react to anyone on stage. I cannot comment on Maria Gargano's performance as the boys' aunt Gert because, unable to endure further travesty, I fled at intermission.

If I sound indignant, it's because I bloody well am. As I am a playwright — first, last, and always — it maddens me to see a fellow dramatist's work eviscerated. I can scarcely guess how Criswell would react if some damn fool did to one of her own plays what she has done to this one, but I do know what I'd like to say to her. First: if you cannot cast for the play at hand and it isn't your own, do another play. Second: a word that may not be in her personal vocabulary but should be — shame!

OdysseyStage presents Lost in Yonkers Friday-Saturday, May 16-17, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, May 18, at 3 p.m. at St. Thomas More School, 920 Carmichael St., Chapel Hill, North Carolina. $12 ($10 students, seniors, and active-duty military personnel). 919/479-7316 or 309-9286 or simplegifts@attglobal.net or paula_scotland@mindspring.com. http://www.odysseystagetheatre.org/.

& a series of letters dated 5/16, 5/16, & 5/22/03:

Alan Criswell Challenges Scott Ross' Review of Lost in Yonkers — and Ross Replies

EDITOR'S NOTE: From time to time, some of our readers vehemently disagree with our critical judgments. Whenever possible, we try to print their comments and give the critic whose work is second-guessed the opportunity to reply. In this case, Triangle actor and director Alan Criswell e-mailed the following response to Robert's Reviews theater critic and playwright Scott Ross' May 15th review of OdysseyStage's current community-theater production of Lost in Yonkers, staged by his wife, Sheryle, a local director and playwright.

From Alan Criswell, via e-mail:

ROSS:

You apparently were so blinded by the casting of Lost in Yonkers that you couldn't see the forest for the trees. Ever hear of the "willing suspension of disbelief"? Ross, you have shown yourself to be pompous, arrogant, and insensitive. I say shame on you! And how dare you review a play that you didn't even sit through. After all, Ross, the sum is greater than its parts, isn't it?

By the way, do you know that Hamlet has been done by many women and old men. Mary Rowland played Hamlet at Theatre in the Park. How do you know what Neil Simon would think of casting sisters instead of brothers. I think he might smile and say, "Go for it." And it, too, has been done by girls many times. Just check the Internet. And, Ross, what about Simon's The Odd Couple, which was done by women to great success.

So — where do you come off — you let the fact that you are an inexperienced and little produced playwright totally bias your opinion. Do your plays come from God and, therefore, no changes? In my neighborhood, you would be called a schmuck!

Get a life, man.

And, by the way, the public seemed to love the play. People who read your review and mine should come to see the play and make up their own minds.

ALAN CRISWELL



SCOTT ROSS REPLIES:

While I've never before responded formally to any criticism of my writing, either as a critic or a playwright, Alan Criswell's letter concerning my critique of Lost in Yonkers demands a reply. I'm always happy to entertain rational debate on my views as a critic, but acidic rants penned in the heat of the moment, without reflection, and with extreme bias, do not qualify.

Whether Mr. Criswell agrees with my criticisms or not, referring to me as "an inexperienced and little produced playwright" is uncalled for, ungentlemanly, deeply personal, and — most important to me — completely untrue. (And he calls me insensitive?) I don't appreciate being put in the position of justifying myself as a dramatist. However, for the record, I have been writing plays for over 25 years, and every play I've written has been produced.

Further, Mr. Criswell's insults have nothing to do with what I wrote about Yonkers. Even if it could be proven to have some connection, the question must then be asked in return: did I insult Sheryle Criswell as a playwright? Did I descend to vituperous name-calling? I criticized her direction of another playwright's work.

I'm not sure what Mr. Criswell implies by a "willing suspension of disbelief" in this case. Was I supposed to suspend my belief that the girls were girls? Similarly, when female actors perform Hamlet, it's as women playing a man. They don't change the name of the play to Hamletta.

As for "daring" to review a production I did not finish, this is hardly a new phenomenon. Many critics do this, and the honest ones admit it up front, as I did. My leaving the show at intermission hardly disqualifies me from reporting on what I saw in the first act.

As to the question "How do you know what Neil Simon would think?," I never said I did. The question might better be "How do the Criswells?" That Mr. Criswell writes "I think he might..." indicates that the Criswells haven't received Simon's approval, or the approval of his representatives. Similarly, Mr. Criswell's comment about The Odd Couple simply doesn't apply; Simon himself wrote the female version of that play specifically for women to act in. It wasn't done for him or without permission.

Mr. Criswell's remarks about my play writing are, frankly, specious. Of course, I do not write my plays fully formed in one sitting and expect there to be no changes. Few exchanges in a playwright's life are more gratifying than those which occur in the rehearsal process, and which in the best instances lead to a much finer play by the end of production. But, again, what has this to do with Mr. Criswell's argument? His ad-hominem attack on me is either a red herring, or an example of paralogical thinking, because neither Sheryle Criswell nor I wrote this play and said "No changes." Neil Simon wrote it.

The final argument, which I think puts the matter into proper perspective, should belong to Simon himself. Speaking in an interview he said of Lost in Yonkers, "It is probably the most honest play I've ever written. I did the best and dug the deepest I ever did. I was making up the story, but I tried to capture the characters as I do in my semi-autobiographical plays."

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Another View of Lost in Yonkers

Editor's Note: David Serxner responds below to what he considers Alan Criswell's unnecessarily personal attacks on his friend Scott Ross after Ross panned the OdysseyStage community-theater production of Lost in Yonkers directed by Criswell's wife, Sheryle.

As the other half of the duo who went to see [the May 10th performance] of Lost in Yonkers, I feel I too should weigh-in on this little tempest in a teapot.

I do not understand the vitriolic tone taken by Mr. Criswell in his response to Scott Ross' review of the production. One would think that the review was personally attacking Mrs. Criswell as opposed to being a critique of her direction of another author's script. When one creates art or directs a play, one must expect arrows to be shot. To stoop to the level of name-calling and professional reputation questioning is a little too strong a reaction to a review of a production that was there to be reviewed. Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary (1967 edition) defines "review" as "4) an act of inspecting or examining, ... 6) a critical evaluation (as of a book or play)" emphasis added. Mrs. Criswell directed a production of Neil Simon's Lost in Yonkers and Mr. Ross provided a review of that production. It does not matter that we only stayed for the first act — and at least Mr. Ross was honest enough to admit that we left.

The main objection in Mr. Ross' review of the production is the changing of the two main characters from young men to young ladies, and decreasing the age of one from 13.5 years to 10.5 years. Legal arguments aside, this does constitute a serious change to another author's writing and vision.

Neil Simon wrote his play about Artie and Jay (a.k.a. Jacob), not Marty and Rae (a.k.a. Rachel). Comparisons to Hamlet and The Odd Couple are not applicable in this case; nor is "willing suspension of disbelief." These were not two young ladies playing young men, these were two young ladies playing young ladies. One of the central messages in this play, which is semi-autobiographical, is that men do not cry. The boys' father cried, and look at what happened to him — a bum ticker and a boatload of debt — signs of weakness in his mother's eyes. Changing a boy to a girl negates that message because it was okay for girls (except for the Grandmother) to cry. Given what Neil Simon's grandmother probably saw in her lifetime, this resolution to not cry was probably a hard-earned one, and a hard one to keep. Also, at 13.5 years of age, Artie is considered a man in the eyes of the Jewish community — in Temple Artie would be counted as part of minyon (one of the 10 men needed to be able to conduct full services, i.e., complete with reading the Torah) and he would be able to hold the Torah and be called to the bema (pulpit) during services. So changing Artie to Marty also changes part of Neil Simon's cultural background.

In the preview in Robert's Reviews, Mrs. Criswell said "The biggest challenge for me was casting the play with two girls playing the traditional boy's roles. After auditions for this show, it became clear to me that it would be almost impossible for me to realize this play with the young male talent that I had to choose from. I decided to take a huge leap of faith and cast it with two girls, the oldest 14, the youngest only 9. It was, in my humble opinion, a brilliant move. These kids are sensational and give the script a whole other interpretation."

The problem with this line of logic is that this is not Neil Simon's vision or interpretation. I am not saying that it is not okay to question visions and interpretations, but it is wrong to change messages, meanings, and cultural backgrounds.

I am not even going to enter into the debate about having Uncle Louie undress in front of two teen and pre-teen age girls.

The main question that I have for Mrs. Criswell is: how would you feel if someone took one of your plays and changed the sex of a character without asking you? Mrs. Criswell, your writings, if I may be so bold as to think this, are a part of you. If someone changed part of you would you be "willing to suspend disbelief"?

Nor am I going to get into a name calling catfight. I was truly amazed at the amount of bile thrown out by Mr. Criswell in his response to the review. To close with the use of a Yiddish term that translates to "penis" in English is a tad bit much and, frankly rather tasteless — almost as tasteless as having an adult man undress in front of two young women.