Comedies From Both Sides of the Atlantic Brighten Broadway and Off-Broadway


BY a scheduling coincidence, works by America's and Britain's top comic dramatists are currently playing on Gotham stages. The US is represented by Neil Simon with ``Lost in Yonkers,'' at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. British veteran Alan Ayckbourn has two plays running: ``Taking Steps,'' at the Broadway Circle in the Square, and ``Absent Friends,'' at Off-Broadway's Manhattan Theatre Club.

Lost in Yonkers

Comedy by Neil Simon. Directed by Gene Saks. Starring Irene Worth, Mercedes Ruehl, Kevin Spacey. At the Richard Rodgers Theatre.

`LOST IN YONKERS'' finds Broadway challenged afresh by America's most accomplished comic dramatist. Neil Simon's new genre piece may not strike any unprecedented heights of laughter. But the playwright does plumb emotional depths heretofore hinted at in his ``Brighton Beach'' trilogy. Less specifically autobiographical than the earlier plays, ``Lost in Yonkers'' nevertheless deals with family matters some of which were suggested by the author's own growing-up experiences. I find this his most impressive work to date.

``Lost in Yonkers'' takes place over a 10-month period in the two-bedroom apartment over Kurnitz's Kandy Store, the exterior of which is suggested in designer Santo Loquasto's Hopper-like front curtain of long-shadowed figures illumined by an unseen street light. The curtain rises to reveal the well-worn drabness of the living room in which teenagers Jay (Jamie Marsh) and Arty (Danny Gerard) are being deposited with their unwelcoming, tightfisted Grandma Kurnitz (Irene Worth). The time is 1942. In debt to a loan shark, the boys' widower father, Eddie Kurnitz (Mark Blum), is taking to the road to sell scrap metal for manufacture into ships and guns.

The story moves forward from the hot Sunday evening of the introduction through a succession of seven scenes in which Simon observes and examines the state of Kurnitz family relations and estrangements. Central to their problems is the forbidding Grandma, whose lack of affection for her children and grandchildren casts a prevailing shadow.

Children being children, however, Jay and Arty soon begin demonstrating their own resilient techniques for survival. In the process, they get to know such kinfolk as their Aunt Bella (Mercedes Ruehl), a simple-minded, 25-year-old spinster determined nevertheless to find love and affection and a husband with whom to have babies. The role is played with affecting sweetness and ultimate resolve by Miss Ruehl, who makes Bella's declaration of independence a stirring highlight of these familial confrontation s.

And then there is Uncle Louie (razor-sharp Kevin Spacey), a small-time hood parading as ``a freelance money manager.'' Louie initially awes his nephews with con-man spiels until an emboldened Jay challenges the grownup's bullying tactics. Here as elsewhere the author displays the uses of theatrical artifice and sharp comic characterization that make Simon-watching so satisfying a pleasure for the playgoer.

As the forbidding Grandma Kurnitz, Miss Worth dominates the household and the action even from behind the closed door of her bedroom. The belatedly acknowledged sources of her own iciness - the losses of her husband and children before escaping to America - are at the core of Worth's powerful performance. In the end, though still stiff-necked and stiff-backed, the aged survivor submits grudgingly to the displays of gratitude and affection with which her two young grandsons take their departure from the ordeal of being lost in Yonkers.

Even after he has disappeared into salesman's limbo down South, Mr. Blum's Eddie figures as an unseen presence through a series of letters in which his voice is heard over the sound system. Eddie, too, eventually has his chance to confront his forbidding old mother. As the youngest Kurnitzes, Jamie Marsh and Danny Gerard behave with that apparently artless spontaneity that delights the spectator (and can create formidable competition for the grownups in the cast). Lauren Klein's late appearing Gert comp letes the company which, under Gene Saks's direction, brings the little Yonkers household comically but more often poignantly alive. Tharon Musser's muted lighting matches the mood of a play whose brightness is often darkly shadowed.

Taking Steps

Farce by Alan Ayckbourn. Directed by Alan Strachan. Starring Christopher Benjamin, Jonathan Hogan, Pippa Pearthree, Jane Summerhays. At the Circle in the Square.

`TAKING STEPS'' (pun intended) is a multilevel farce on a one-level arena stage. Alan Ayckbourn explains the play's 1977 origin in a Playbill note: ``It was written, like all my plays, for the Theatre in the Round in Scarborough. In this type of theater, doors, the staple of most farces, are really impractical. So I've substituted floors instead. This is, I hope, a play you can enjoy on several levels at once.''

Thanks to the mobile cast guided by British director Alan Strachan and to James Morgan's comically cluttered set, the Ayckbourn hopes are happily realized. The almost nonstop action takes place at The Pines, a supposedly haunted British mansion with far more than ``39 steps.''

Prominent among its assembled visitors are Roland (Christopher Benjamin), a wealthy prospective buyer because ``a very successful man should live in a very big house''; ex go-go dancer Elizabeth (Jane Summerhays), Roland's about to be ex-wife; her brother Mark (Jonathan Hogan), who hopes Roland will finance the fishing tackle shop he yearns to open; and Kitty (Pippa Pearthree), Mark's inconstant ex-fiancee. The sextet is completed by Tristram (Spike McClure), a squeaky-voiced solicitor and Leslie Bainbr idge (Bill Buell), a Yamaha-riding builder in leather and helmet determined to get the job of redoing The Pines.

Up and down the imaginary stairs, in and out of the attic, bedroom, and lounge race the tireless creatures of the Ayckbourn tour-de-farce. This is the kind of make-believe that requires the spectator to share the premise of the premises and give his imagination free rein. (When the actors jump up and down to prove the solidity of the floors, a chandelier hanging from the rafters begins to wobble.)

Mr. Benjamin, a returning British visitor, sets the standard for the Circle in the Square performance with his broad caricature of the pompous bucket tycoon. The other players respond unflaggingly to the demands of the physical farcical workout. Besides being a thoroughly enjoyable romp, ``Taking Steps'' is a worthy tribute to Ben Travers, the longtime master of British farce to whom the published version is dedicated. The Broadway production was costumed by Gail Brassard and lighted by Mary Jo Dondling er.

Absent Friends

Comedy by Alan Ayckbourn. Directed by Lynne Meadow. At the Manhattan Theatre Club through March 24.

`ABSENT FRIENDS'' dates back to 1974 and concerns a now-familiar assortment of troubled Ayckbourn couples. As the lights go up on John Lee Beatty's posh living room set, Diana (Belinda Blethyn) is nervously preparing for a very special tea party and chattering away to Evelyn (Gillian Anderson), a stoic early arrival. The guest of honor will be Colin (Peter Frechette) with whom all concerned are more or less friendly. Awaiting his arrival, they speculate on how to deal tactfully with the recent drowning of Colin's fianc'ee.

Far from being overwhelmed with grief, however, Colin exults in an outpouring of happy memories. He soon produces a bulky album and a box of snapshots, all celebrating the happiness he shared with the deceased Carol. His good cheer is almost unendurable. Not content with reassuring all present, Colin proceeds to analyze their particular relationships. That he gets everything all wrong supplies much of the wry comic thrust of ``Absent Friends.''

As Colin continues on his disastrously wrongheaded course, Mr. Ayckbourn underscores the contrast between fantasy and sometimes cruel fact. ``Absent Friends'' grows progressively darker, reaching its peak when Diana's repressed frustration explodes in a hysterical breakdown.

As the central figures around whom Ayckbourn's tempest at a tea party revolves, Miss Blethyn and Mr. Frechette respond with the histrionic equivalent of perfect pitch to the play's orchestrated dissonances. Visiting British actress Blethyn seems to know by heart this harried hostess who worries over the details of her tea party, fusses over guests, and remains nervously on edge until overwhelmed by the full implications of her plight. Frechette's Colin epitomizes the well-meaning nitwit whose opinions a re matched only by his lack of perception.

The two central performances fit comfortably into the well-balanced ensemble directed by Lynne Meadow. The cast includes David Purdham as Paul, Diana's brusque, unfaithful husband; the aforementioned Miss Anderson, whose gum-chewing Evelyn scarcely speaks at all, and John Curless as her ineffectual mate; and Ellen Parker as good-natured Marge.

``Absent Friends'' is a dark comedy, a rueful view of marital matches and mismatches. By ironic contrast, the mis en scene is invitingly hospitable; Mr. Beatty's luxuriant set was lighted by Ken Billington.

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