In 1991, audiences and critics alike were surprised at how successfully Simon mixed his trademark light humor with the characteristics of a serious memory play. It even touched upon such surprisingly dark themes of survival at any cost, the dysfunctional family, the need to feel loved by a parent, and mental illness.
While Michael Bloom's new production succeeds in nailing all of Simon's one-liners with precise comedic rhythm and overall sincerity, its downside is that the ensemble cast approaches the text with such different levels of energy that it creates a noticeable disparity in acting style.
Set in 1942, the story opens with teenage brothers Arty (Maxwell Beer) and Jay (Alex Wyse) waiting uncomfortably for their father Eddie (John Plumpis) in their grandmother's small upstairs apartment, which is located above a candy shop in Yonkers, New York. (Since Michael Schweikhardt's detailed set was built to accommodate multiple theaters of different sizes, it is noticeably too small for Paper Mill's large stage and must be surrounded by a black framing device to fill in the gaps.)
Eddie soon reveals to his sons that he needs to take a job selling scrap metal in the South in order to pay off the financial debt he incurred due to his late wife's hospital bills, leaving him with no option but to leave Arty and Jay under the care of his steely German immigrant mother (Rosemary Prinz) and sweet but mentally slow 35-year-old sister Bella (Sara Surrey).
During their ten-month stay, the boys look on as Grandma Kurnitz and Bella's relationship hits an unexpected crisis point due to Bella's strong desire to get married and start her own family. Louie (J. Anthony Crane), the boys' uncle, who is presumed to be engaged in organized crime, also makes a surprise visit while on the run from other henchmen.
Wyse delivers a multidimensional performance as 15-year-old Jay, looking on with stupefied bewilderment at the family's odd behavior and personality quirks, but also emphasizing his character's coming of age and emotional maturity. Beer, whose injured hand is presently covered in bandages, possesses a youthful spirit, but delivers all his lines with a blank face and loud, often mumbled delivery.
Prinz, who is best known to some for her work on television's As the World Turns, brings a warm and sprightly spirit to the traditionally chilly role of Grandma that makes her more kvetching than intimidating. She is also one of the few in the cast to downplay her performance with subtlety.
On the other hand, Surrey is brash and over-the-top as Bella, constantly flailing her arms around the stage. Crane is similarly peppy and flamboyant as Louie, portraying him as a cartoonish, chuckling version of an Italian mobster. Plumpis even overplays Eddie's maudlin monologue to the boys about his money woes with manic energy. Conversely, Patricia Buckley manages to nail her cameo as the asthmatic Aunt Gert, whose psychosomatic breathing problem leaves her shrieking and clutching her chest in pain.
Audiences, however, won't be pained by seeing this worthy work -- even in this uneven production.