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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

We’re confused—not because we’re Lost in Yonkers, but because of all the questions that are raised by this production of this show.

Have we come to expect too much from Desert Theatreworks? Has the quality of its other productions led us to anticipate an impossible-to-achieve consistency? With all the projects DTW has going, has the company spread itself too thin to give sufficient time and effort to this show? While there are laughs aplenty in this play, they’re due to Neil Simon’s deft scriptwriting—not because of what we see happening on the stage of the Joslyn Center’s Arthur Newman Theatre.

The most egregious problems suggest a lack of steady leadership. Somebody took their eyes off the road here. Example: It’s hard for actors, affecting an accent, to hear themselves clearly, especially if they’re simultaneously worrying about lines/timing/blocking/orientation. They need somebody else’s keen ears to catch them if they wander off. The actors here were all over the place with their mishmash of accents, and the results fluctuated from no dialect at all to downright mispronunciations.

Another example: There were several blocking mistakes, which placed some actors downstage close to the audience—completely masking the action happening upstage. This is not the kind of error we would expect at this theater.

Want me to go on? How about the grandmother’s wig, which was so obviously false and misfit and wrong that it actually distracted us from her acting? Or what about Gert’s breathing problems? They were funny the first couple of times, but then she changed the effect and totally overdid it—causing the audience to stop laughing. How about the father, Eddie, reading his own letters aloud, while he holds the paper up so high that you can barely see his forehead? Why is Louis’ jacket bunched all funny in the front when it’s buttoned—did they just hope we wouldn’t notice? Should I mention doors that stick nearly every time—except for one that slowly swung open by itself during someone’s speech? How could this happen?

It makes me feel terrible to point these things out, as I have consistently lauded the work at this theater for its originality and solid old-school creativity. But something has gone wrong here—not that you won’t enjoy the wit and wisdom of Neil Simon’s play, and revel in his magnificently crafted humor. Setup! Punch line! Roar with laughter!

Lost in Yonkers takes place during World War II. The widowed father of two young boys (supposedly 13 and 15, but neither looks it … we might have believed 9 and 11) drops them off at his mother’s home above her confectionary store in Yonkers, so he can take advantage of a wartime work opportunity involving many months of travel. The grandmother is a German refugee and mother of six. The boys’ observations and comments about their new situation are wonderful, with their “out of the mouths of babes” insight.

The grandmother, a hard case played by June August, has the most fabulous face, tragically overshadowed by the already mentioned weird silver wig. Her remaining children—the kids’ aunts and uncle—who were raised under her rigid and severe hand, lead lives that show their reactions to her steely and uncompromising discipline. Aunt Bella, a difficult role performed by Daniela Ryan, is a multilayered young lady full of secrets who displays serious problems with reality. Aunt Gert, played by Adina Lawson—wearing yet another ghastly copper-colored hairpiece mistake—has developed breathing problems due to the stress. Uncle Louis, played by Stephen Blackwell, has defected to a freewheeling lifestyle in a world of gangsters, breezily choosing to ignore his former life—until he requires a handy hideout from his nefarious companions. Eddie, the boys’ father, portrayed by Gregg Aratin, comes off as a broken man, overwhelmed by his responsibilities and terrified of his mother, yet determined to set things right and get out of debt. Alas, his performance was robotic.

Of course, it’s the kids who get the very best lines, and Cameron Keys, as Jay—or Yakob, as their grandmother insists on calling him—the older brother, is a pleasant surprise. Because he doesn’t wear makeup, we watch his fine-skinned face go bright-red under the influence of anger or indignation or protest, an astonishing experience. His kid brother, the big-eyed Angus Feath as Arty or Arthur, shows a poise and composure far beyond his years, and indicates a tremendous promise for the future. This young man has a gift for comedy and is definitely one to watch.

So what happened here? Perhaps the play just simply wasn’t ready. When the actors all spoke their lines, they seemed to miss the deep conviction of a finished product, and lacked the thoughtfulness of a stage-ready performance. Every actor has to remember the words, the blocking, the plots, but it’s entirely another experience to bring to the play the convincing portrayal, the passion, the commitment, the sincerity of a performance that will move the audience not just to laughter, but a whole range of emotions. They call it “polishing,” and this show simply lacked polish.

If we are not honest about the things that are wrong in our fantastic local theater community, then our praise will mean nothing, either. And that leaves us not just Lost in Yonkers … but really confused.

Lost in Yonkers, a production of Desert Theatreworks, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Jan. 25, at the Arthur Newman Theatre at the Joslyn Center, located at 73750 Catalina Way, in Palm Desert. Tickets are $23 to $25. For tickets or more information, call 760-980-1455, or visit www.dtworks.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Anyone who’s seen the 1967 movie Wait Until Dark vividly recalls the terror they felt for Audrey Hepburn as she fought for her life in the nail-biting final scene. In fact, the whole point of the film, and the play that preceded it, is to scare the daylights out of us.

Though it has wonderful moments, Desert Theatreworks’ production of Wait Until Dark doesn’t quite achieve that goal.

Frederick Knott’s plot involves a heroin-filled doll that makes its way into the life of blind New York housewife Susy Hendrix (Katie Pavao). Her husband, Sam (Gregg Aratin), has innocently brought the doll from Canada as a favor to a woman who turns up dead early in the play. Three bad guys—Harry Roat (Hal O’Connell), Mike Talman (Stephen McMillen) and Sgt. Carlino (Florentino Carrillo)—try to make Susy believe that her husband will be suspected of the murder, and the only way to protect him is to hand over the coveted doll. The drug-filled toy is actually in the hands of the little girl upstairs, Gloria (Vienna Lima and Scarlett Goodlander, alternating performances), who has stolen it after discovering it’s not a gift for her.

I won’t give away much more of the story, to protect those who have not seen the film, but it involves cops who aren’t really cops, phone booths (remember those?), the reappearance of the doll, knives, gasoline and lots of action on a stage plunged into total darkness.

The pivotal role in this play is that of Susy, and thankfully, director Lance Phillips-Martinez has cast the terrific Katie Pavao. Playing a blind person onstage requires great skill, and Pavao has it. Her eyes never actually focus directly on another character’s face, but she does not look too far to the side or too high—a common mistake by amateurs, who can come across as phony. Attractive, charismatic and endearing, Pavao makes us root for Susy from her first appearance to the final curtain. A touch of feistiness balances the vulnerability that comes with a lack of sight.

Though he has a nice stage presence, Hal O’Connell’s Roat doesn’t come across as truly menacing until the very end of the play; this is one of the main reasons the production lacks a consistent feeling of tension and suspense. The same goes for McMillen and Carrillo. They are the right types physically, and McMillen has some nice moments as he and Susy start to feel sympathy for each other, but as bad guys, they are just not quite scary enough.

Gregg Aratin does a nice job as Susy’s loving husband, who doesn’t coddle his wife because of her disability. Vienna Lima, who played the doll-pilfering Gloria in the opening-night performance, is appropriately bratty (and occasionally helpful).

Ron Phillips-Martinez re-creates a Greenwich Village basement apartment nicely, and the sound effects are fine. Lights—and a lack of them—are crucial in this production, and Andy Cavalletto is up to the challenge. The pitch-black final confrontation between Susy and Roat finally gives the audience the thrill for which they’ve been waiting.

The 1967 film version—featuring Alan Arkin, Richard Crenna, Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and Jack Weston, as well as Hepburn—had the advantage of a score by Henry Mancini. Perhaps a more liberal use of music throughout the play would heighten the dramatic tension. (Imagine Jaws or Psycho without the soundtrack.) That, as well as a slight quickening of the pace here and there, and more sinister villains, would raise this production of Wait Until Dark to the edge-of-your-seat level at which it should be.  

Desert Theatreworks’ production of Wait Until Dark is performed at 7 p.m., Friday; and 2 and 7 p.m., and Saturday, through Saturday, May 17, at the Joslyn Center’s Arthur Newman Theatre, 73750 Catalina Way, in Palm Desert. Tickets are $23 to $25. For tickets or more information, call 760-980-1455, or visit www.dtworks.org.

Published in Theater and Dance