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The new Compass Rose Studio Theater in Eastport’s Bay Ridge Shopping Center has hit on a winning strategy for success, debuting with Neil Simon’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, Lost in Yonkers. That strategy: deliver family entertainment starring student-child actors alongside seasoned professionals, and watch them grow. It’s inspirational on a human and artistic level.
Picture two kids in a candy store, spoiled and happy. Now turn your expectations upside down, and you have life as the Kurnitz brothers know it for one year, living with their severe grandmother above Kurnitz’s Kandy Store. Lanky Jay (Eli Pendry) and little Arty (Will Fritz) are surrounded by tragedy: World War II, their mother’s death and poverty. Their father, Eddie (Anthony Bosco), is so overwhelmed by debt that he takes itinerant work and leaves his boys in the care of his mother, a woman so disagreeable she has scarred all of her children. Grandma Kurnitz (Lucinda Merry-Browne) is cold and strong as steel, miserly in spirit and substance, sharp as nails and blunt as a mallet. But she loves her family in her own perverse way.
Themes of estrangement, domination and duty run deep in this play, yet throughout is delightful comic relief in the boys’ coping skills with their dysfunctional guardian angels in the form of two aunts and an uncle. Bella (Brianna Letourneau) is a ditsy but loving old maid, capable yet incapable. Louie (Daniel Siefring), a mercurial gangster with the wisdom of Solomon, teaches the boys moxie, a quality their father never learned. Gert (Sarah Strasser) is good for laughs as the flibbertigibbet who inhales her words like a Hoover. Survivors all, they never liked their mother, but they didn’t hate her either. It’s an important distinction as Louie impresses on the boys.
The adult cast is superb. Letourneau is full of subtle surprises. Bosco is so overwrought the audience squirms for him, while Seifring as his antithesis is as terrifying and fun as Halloween. But Merry-Browne’s spellbinding portrayal of an omniscient, omnipotent woman steals the show.
As for the student performers, Pendry and Fritz work so well as a comedy team that you can almost hear Abbot and Costello in their bickering. Fritz brings to Arty’s impudence an impishness that is the perfect foil to Pendry’s gravity. The one rule of acting that they have not mastered yet, though, is the art of speaking upstage without turning their backs.
The production staff has done a fine job of recreating the drab war years with period costumes that are perfect, from Arty’s knickers to Grandma’s oxford heels, and the set is stiff as the family and faded as their dreams.
This is a wonderful show for all, from the war generation to next generation and the text generation.
Director: Brandon McCoy. Set & props: Sophie George and JoAnn Gidos. Costumes: Meghan O’Beirne. Lights: Paul Webster. Technical assistant: Patrick Horn.
Playing thru Nov. 20 at 8pm Th-Sa; 3pm Su at Compass Rose Theater, 1011 Bay Ridge Ave., Eastport. $25 w/discounts; rsvp: 410-980-6662; www.compassrosetheater.org.