Oh, this is really good.
But first things first: as the lights went up on a a gorgeous art-deco shop-front a couple of miles north of Manhattan, I could only think: geeze, but Rep does a good set.
Actually, Rep does consistently outstanding sets - easily better than any other local company; and often much better than professional touring productions, too (I'm looking at you, HIT Production's Let The Sun Shine, and I hope you're ashamed of yourself). There are rare mis-steps (cough cough Life x 3 cough cough), but there have significantly more often been some absolute crackers, including the town house in Pygmalion, the astonishing street of terrace houses (complete with Valiant) in Pig Iron People, the stunning garden setting for Humble Boy, and the clever clever clever set of books earlier this year in Pride & Prejudice. This lovely construction by Andrew Kay is well and truly up to standard.
And the rest of this production lives up to the set. Neil Simon won a Pulitzer for Lost In Yonkers in 1991, a year that also brought us La Bete, Angels in America and Death and the Maiden, so it can get by without any praise from little me, but it is warm and funny and touching. It's 1942, and Eddie Kurnitz (Colin Milner) has just lost his wife to cancer; he's hocked himself to the eyeballs to loan sharks to pay for her care, and the only way to make enough to pay them back is to hit the road selling scrap metal. The only place to leave his two sons, Jay (Lachlan Ruffy) and Artie (Pippin Carroll) is with their deeply unpleasant grandmother (Helen Vaughn-Roberts), who won't take them until their sweet, child-like aunt Bella (Bridgette Black) threatens to leave. Life with Grandma is pretty grim, but leavened by the occasional appearance of their Uncle Louie (Paul Walker), a C-grade mobster. There's another aunt, Gertie (Elaine Noon); two other siblings died in childhood, and Grandma has damaged all the survivors in different ways.
Lighting, sound and costumes are all spot on, and for the most part, direction from veteran Angela Punch-McGregor brings the best out of both script and cast. And my bete noire, the dodgy accent, makes only the most fleeting of appearances.
The performances are uniformly strong. What I thought was looking like the Year of Simon Stone is turning out to be the Year of Lachlan Ruffy; his performance as fifteen-year-old Jay is funny and touching, a kid trying hard to be a man. Pippin Carroll, thirteen and playing thirteen-and-a-half, is an absolute joy. Vulnerable and cheeky and just a total pleasure. The other standout in the cast is Bridgette Black as the excitable and helpless Bella. Her performance - confused, joyful, frightened - was heartbreaking.
Paul Jackson as Louie put in the best performance I've ever seen him give; animated and convincing. (I really want to make a joke about "the most animated I've seen him since Out of Order", but it would be sacrificing truth for a cheap laugh - and in fact I loved him in Out of Order). Colin Milner was solid, warm, and desperate as Eddie; Elaine Noon has only a cameo, but it's a jewel. And Helen Vaughn-Roberts anchors it all with a grim relentlessness; by the time you're ready to pity Grandma Kurnitz, it's simply too late.
Something that especially moves me about this play is that while it is quasi-autobiographical, when Neil Simon's father abandoned his sons to the mercy of relatives for months on end, it was for no very noble reasons; in Lost inYonkers Simon goes to great lengths to make sure we know that Eddie's motivation is the most selfless possible. He's right; had Eddie just dumped his sons on his mother and bunked off for a good time, the warmth and optimism that underpins this story would be lost.
This is a lovely play, beautifully staged and performed, and every bit as good as something you'll see from STC or MTC. Except you can see it right here in Canberra, and I hope you will.