Lost In Yonkers

by Neil Simon
Directed by Spiro Veloudos 
At the Lyric Stage , Boston, through October 18, 1998
Reviewed by G.L. Horton

 If I had seen Paul Osborn's 1939 comedy "Morning's At Seven" in, say, 1965, when I was young and it was already old and out of fashion, I would probably have hated it.  What could be worse than a play about old fogies, especially a close knit clan of boring Midwestern morons endlessly snooping into each other's trivial affairs when they aren't busy being "nice"? They are more successf  These are exactly the people what I fled to te east coast to get away from.  Young people now look at osvorn's play and see me, not my annoying great aunts and grandmothers.Lyric Stage   To contemporary theatergoers, Paul Osborn's  Morning's at Seven may appear to be a long series of anticlimaxes. The nine characters, all related to a quartet of elderly sisters in a small Midwestern town, have clearly not been visited by the ancient curse "May you live an interesting life" -- perhaps because they manage to wring plenty of excitement out of remarkably ordinary situations. The slightest remark (about the weather or one character's absence of hair) can turn into an absurdly long and earnest discussion, and an apparently untroubled courtship can drag on for 12 years without a wedding in sight. Every individual has the right to treat his or her life as a series of crises, Osborn seems to say, and you make do with the crises you've got.

 Most of us, I suspect, have at one time or another acted as if our problems were unprecedented in human history. (Homer, the 40-year-old bachelor in Morning, asks his mother, "If I was to marry Myrtle, do you think I'll get used to it?") That means we can identify with the characters in Osborn's play, but it also means that any production runs the risk of becoming sugary and sentimental, flattering the audience with the idea that anyone who survives to old age is a hero. The audience for Morning a week ago Friday was indeed dominated by the blue-hair set, and it's easy to dismiss the play as a sop to the Lyric's older subscribers, who may have been shaken by the more eclectic and challenging works at the theater of late. I can't do more than speculate on the reason for staging the play, but I can report that director Eric C. Engel and his cast wring a highly enjoyable production out of the 60-year-old work. The cast members are believable throughout the play's three acts, and there's an affectionate but unmistakably ironic attitude toward characters who sometimes forget how lucky they are. This is comfort food, yes, but it's more substantial than Chicken Soup for the Soul.

 Although it's a warm-hearted celebration of family ties, Morning is not exactly in the tradition of period farces like You Can't Take It with You and Arsenic and Old Lace. Early on, Homer warns his long-time girlfriend, Myrtle, that his intellectual Uncle David has dismissed the whole clan as a bunch of "morons," but there are no crazy inventions or colorful delusions here. Homer's father, Carl, is prone to "spells," but he doesn't think he's Teddy Roosevelt. The fearsome Uncle David turns out to be a small-statured man who uses his vocabulary to give himself a tiny bit of distinction in this humdrum town. (And Waldo Fielding avoids turning him into a prissy stereotype.)

 But neither does the play reflect the modern, black-humor sensibility of a Marvin's Room, which opens with a diagnosis of leukemia and uses illness as a prerequisite for family bonding. Morning's at Seven opens with the seventysomething Thor puttering around his backyard with his wife, describing a visit to his doctor that revealed . . . no health problems at all. "He didn't even tell me to stop smoking!" complains Thor (a line that's probably funnier today than it was 1939). What finally gets the action rolling is a visit by Myrtle, which leads to a struggle over the possession of a house, the possible break-up of a marriage, and the alarming disappearance of Carl. Act two ends with a revelation that would have been scandalous a few decades ago but is now just a shopworn plot device. (Neither the play nor the production attempts to convey the moral attitudes of the time.) Fortunately, director Engel maximizes the impact of the play's ending, when spinster sister Arry makes an announcement that's both hilarious and poignant.

 Deena Mazer is a standout as the long-suffering Arry, a woman terrified of being left alone. Her edgy performance is balanced by Mary Klug as tart, sensible Cora, Eve Johnson (who sometimes seems to be imitating Katharine Hepburn) as outspoken Esther, and Alice Duffy as the befuddled, Aunt Bee-like Ida. The performances are enhanced by Engel's graceful direction, which provides plenty of great visual moments. And Jana Durland Howland's costumes are slyly humorous; for example, Ida's mother-hen personality is underscored by her red stockings and pointy shoes. The one distracting element of the production is the pastiche of accents -- most of them Yankee-sounding, with a few hints of Southern drawl.

 It's hard to argue that Morning's at Seven is a play that cries out for a revival at the end of the millennium -- certainly the "How did I get here?" theme is more provocatively handled by Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which just hit town. But I found myself as fascinated by this production as by anything I've seen this year, and that ought to count for something.