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‘Lost’ puts the fun in dysfunctional

Lake City Playhouse’s production of “Lost in Yonkers” reminds us why Neil Simon is one of America’s favorite playwrights. His Pulitzer Prize-winning script contains witty dialogue and quirky, memorable characters.

The story takes place during World War II in Yonkers, N.Y., and centers on two teenage brothers who must stay with their grandmother for several months while their widowed father travels for work in order to repay a loan shark.

But the grandmother isn’t the milk-and-cookies type. Every other character in the play is terrified of the woman who threatens to chop off her grandson’s fingers if he misbehaves.

The first scene belongs to two boys, Arty (Josh Ratelle) and Jay (Josh Nelson), as they try not to wrinkle their suits and fret about seeing their grandmother. Simon gives the young characters some of the play’s funniest lines. Some of them were lost in the audience’s laughter, however. Holding for laughs is an acquired skill.

Simon spends the whole first scene preparing the characters – and the audience – for the grandmother’s entrance.

Tamara Schupman does a fine job portraying the cranky, staunch Jewish-German immigrant, with her tightly braided gray hair and cane that could double as a weapon. She doesn’t crack a smile until the curtain call. While she’s appropriately stoic, she could be even more intimidating.

Director Brittani C. Kelly further indicates the grandmother’s separation from the rest of the family by positioning a chair – that no one else would dare sit in – on one side of the stage.

Hannah Paton is endearing as Bella, the boys’ simple-minded aunt who is still living at home at the age of 35 and dreams of finding love. She provides much humor in the play but also much heart. “I was having such a good dream. I’m going to go finish it,” she says. Her speech about her desire to have babies of her own was spot on.

Eric Paine is entertaining as shady Uncle Louie. His performance brims with energy. The boys’ father (Steve Kane) and Aunt Gert (Angela Carlson) are nervous wrecks around their mother. Gert’s appearance is short, but the fact that she can barely spit out a sentence in front of the old woman steals the scene.

The energy dips in a couple places in the play, and there are several moments where physical action could be used to further the emotional intentions of the dialogue, such as when we first meet the grandmother or when Louie directs the boys to pick up a satchel.

But overall, the cast works together very well, delivering consistent and genuine performances. The energy and emotional stakes really increase in act two, yielding a strong emotional impact. By the end of the evening, the cast, and Simon, prove that dysfunctional families are a normal occurrence, and even the most guarded heart can be opened.

“Lost in Yonkers,” reviewed Friday night at Lake City Playhouse in Coeur d’Alene, continues through May 6. Call (208) 667-1323 for tickets.