'Lost in Yonkers,' Found in Be'er Sheva

Israeli theater rarely mounts productions for actors, but Neil Simon’s 'Lost in Yonkers' has a lead role that’s tailor-made for one actress.

'Lost in Yonkers': Yoav Sadian Rosenberg (left) steals the show. In this scene, he appears with Shiri Gadni and Adam Shnal.
Maayan Kaufman

After viewing theater productions professionally for four decades, I know that one ticket gets me three plays: one is the production I’m on the way to see, with a range of expectations; the second is the production itself; and the third is what remains after seeing it – particularly until writing the review, but afterward as well.

I went to see Be’er Sheva Theater’s production of Neil Simon’s “Lost in Yonkers,” translated and directed by Micah Lewensohn, with Liat Goren in the lead role. And because it’s a long way to Be’er Sheva from where I live, I had time to analyze and reassess my expectations.

In part, of course, they had to do with the place of Neil Simon, the Jewish-American playwright who has succeeded phenomenally on Broadway and in the movies. When I started out as a theater critic, it was very modish (and I agreed with the mode) to turn up one’s nose at the fact that repertory theaters in Israel were producing dramas that had succeeded commercially in New York. Simon was perceived as a skilled writer of comedies for theater entertainment, who was at best an unavoidable necessity.

I’d seen two previous Israeli productions of “Lost in Yonkers” – a pretty much plotless play about two Jewish-American children whose father leaves them to be looked after by his mother. One was by the Cameri Theater in 1991, with Orna Porat and Idit Teperson as the leads, the other by Beit Lessin Theater in 2004, starring Zaharira Harifai and Sarit Vino-Elad. I remember fine performances in both productions, but on the way to Be’er Sheva I reflected that it was not really important to stage this particular play again. My reasoning: There are so many interesting world and Israeli dramas, both classical and modern, that have never been staged here.

Then it came to me that Israeli repertory theater rarely mounts productions for actors. I don’t mean recruiting television talents to sell tickets; I’m referring to the choice of a play not for its content or theme or the writer’s reputation, but simply because it contains a worthy part for an actor to cope with. And this after all, is the essence of theater, what it knows how to do, in contrast to the cinema. It’s not only the new plot or the stage spectacle; it’s precisely an old, even familiar story that an actor recreates on stage by dint of their personality.

I traveled to Be’er Sheva to see an actor – in the lead role of “Lost in Yonkers” – who in recent years appeared in a number of roles in Beit Lessin Theater. They may not have been leads, but she performed beautifully and in a way that was essential to the success of the plays. In fact, she is still appearing in some of them. And now she has left the warm roost of Beit Lessin for a different theater company.

Last year, Goren captivated me (and not only me) in the Be’er Sheva Theater production of “Harold and Maude,” in which, for the first time, she received the kind of attention she hadn’t won in 30 years on the stage. Accordingly it’s not only natural but right for the Be’er Sheva Theater to stage “Lost in Yonkers” for her. This is a “grumpy old woman” role, in contrast to the “sweet old lady” she played in “Harold and Maude.”

The pudding test

All plays (all right, almost all) are good until they start, because the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Here, I admit, something within me grew calm the moment I saw the stage (set design by Neta Haker). The play unfolds in one space, the grandmother’s apartment above her candy store in Yonkers. The setting was in shades of light brown, signifying areas and levels of playacting, creating several entrances and exits, constructing the credible physical framework, and projecting an air of stability. The period effect – the story takes place during World War II – is created by video projections designed by Adam Levinson, within the frame of a big window. What’s screened is a grainy black-and-white reality that could be the daily life of European migrants in Yonkers, and also the frightening gray reality from which the migrants (namely the grandmother, the play’s protagonist) fled.

One of the problems entailed in directing a Neil Simon play – or comedies or tragedies by wizards of American quasi-realistic theater – is the need to ensure that the director’s hand is not felt in them. These are not plays for a “conception” or an “interpretation,” but more like well-made engines that have been tested and proven, so everything depends on the personality of the actors who are supposed to breathe life into them. The director’s wisdom – such as that of Micah Lewensohn, who has experience in this kind of work – lies in proper casting, in knowing that it’s not his show but that of the actors and the story, in guiding and in “editing” both the actors and the text.

“Lost in Yonkers” is basically a situation play. Two children are taken to stay with their grandmother by their widowed father. (Yoav Sadian Rosenberg plays the younger one and steals the show, both because it’s that kind of role and also because he knows how. Adam Shnal is his affable older brother.) Buckling under debt, the father is compelled to “store” them with his mother for nine months. Udi Ben David is likable as the father, who apart from the first and last scene is present on the stage through the letters he sends his children during his quest for money.

Restrained gloom and scowling

But this plot framework, children’s charm and all, is misleading, because the play isn’t about them or even about their father. The play is about the grandmother, a life-inured refugee who fled from Germany to the United States. She has lost two children, has two daughters who are somewhat mentally disabled (one in an institution, the other living with her), and two sons. One of them (the silky smooth Oren Cohen) is a gangster hiding in her home from his debtors; the other is the children’s father, and she regards him as a failure. This is the story of a hardscrabble, wounded, disillusioned control freak of a woman who has decided that the world has hurt her enough and will not let it hurt her anymore – even if that forces her to be harsh and unpleasant toward her children, her grandchildren and above all, herself.

Simon has the knack of preparing a character’s entrance properly. The character is talked about and made scary in a long opening scene – until Goren comes onstage. She was a radiant sun of infectious, childlike goodheartedness in “Harold and Maude.” Here she is the personification of restrained gloom and a scowling attitude toward life, amid quiet, almost floating movements and a quite heavy German accent (whose necessity I’m not convinced of). It’s not easy to dominate the stage as a killjoy on this scale, but Goren succeeds in being consistent, self-contained and corked up. Yet she also stirs a measure of empathy, even though the character she plays certainly makes every effort to be intolerable.

Maybe it’s thanks to the directing, and certainly it’s thanks to the acting, but in this, my third encounter with the play, it seemed more interesting than I’d remembered. This was also due to the qualities that Shiri Gadni brings to the stage as Bella, the daughter who lives with grandma, a girl in a woman’s body who exudes innocent human warmth. The grandmother’s approach concentrates on demarcating the boundaries within which she will be able to protect her family. Bella is aware of her mental lacunae, but isn’t willing to let them, or her mother, make her miserable. Edwa Adani creates a riveting comic figure as the sister, who is more disabled than Bella.

In the final scene, the children and their father part with the grandmother. She hasn’t changed much, it seems, and hasn’t become more flexible, but her grandchildren have learned to love her as she is, with her intolerable limitations, which are stronger than she.

The next performances of “Lost in Yonkers” at the Be’er Sheva Theater are on January 9-12, 14, 15 and 28. (08) 626-6442; website (Hebrew): www.b7t.co.il