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Not so simple Simon

The St. Petersburg Little Theatre tackles Lost in Yonkers, considered Neil Simon's "serious" drama.

Published June 12, 2003

[Publicity photo]
The cast of Lost in Yonkers, a play built around a World War II-era family.

There were two reasons Christine White wanted to direct Lost in Yonkers.

"No. 1, it's Neil Simon," she said. "No. 2, I think it's his best work, because even though he's a comedy writer, this is more of a drama."

You usually know pretty much what to expect from a Neil Simon play. Colorful but two-dimensional characters, endless streams of wisecracks, wacky but familiar sitcom premises. A refreshing swim in the shallow end of the pool.

In the 1980s, starting with his autobiographical trilogy (Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound), Simon started injecting more substance into his plays. With Lost in Yonkers, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1991, Simon made the switch to full-blown drama.

The play is built around a weird World War II-era family. Widower Eddie owes money to loan sharks, and has to make an extended business trip to earn some money. He deposits his two sons with their cruel grandma and their none-too-bright Aunt Bella for 10 months.

That's pretty much it, as far as plot goes. The two kids learn all the family secrets, and watch as the family unravels and then comes back together.

"It's a very dysfunctional family," White said. "But in the end, you gotta love 'em."

Simon's quirky characters have helped White attract a cast full of St. Petersburg Little Theater favorites, including Ron Zietz, who recently directed a popular production of Annie Get Your Gun at the theater; Sharon Cook, who recently took over the role of the simple Aunt Bella; and Sister Elaine Taylor, who heads the SPLT children's program.

The two boys in the cast have to carry a lot of the weight, and White says she's found young actors who are strong enough to do that.

Nathaniel Beaver, 16, has done a lot of work with Bravo, a children's theater company in Pinellas Park. Ben Robinson, whom White describes as "just about the cutest thing you'd ever want to see," plays the younger brother. SPLT patrons will recognize him from last summer's production of Little Things.

Nostalgia is a big part of the appeal of Lost in Yonkers, and White said she and her colleagues are trying to create a total World War II experience in the theater. Even the lobby will be filled with memorabilia, including period magazines and recorded war updates.

PREVIEW: Lost in Yonkers, tonight through June 22 at the St. Petersburg Little Theatre. Curtain is at 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Call (727) 866-1973.

[Last modified June 11, 2003, 10:43:24]

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