It happens every year about this time: the Montana Repertory Theatre, one of the nation’s only touring companies focused exclusively on producing plays, kicks off its cross-country trek by hosting an immaculately professional performance in its own backyard. It’s a chance for Missoula to see equity actors and directors with credits ranging from Broadway to the big screen—and some University of Montana talent—strut their stuff before hitting every performing arts center from here to Alma, Ark. No matter what the particular cast or script, it’s consistently one of the finest performances of the year and deserves its reputation as a feather in our collective local hat.
This year is no exception, save for one major distinction: while the ringers are remarkable in the Rep’s version of Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers, it’s two starring students who end up stealing the show. Danny Luwe is a senior in the University of Montana Drama/Dance program and Marie Fahlgren a sophomore. Together, playing the teenage brothers at the center of Simon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning script, they deliver witty one-liners and execute deft physical comedy as if they were the names at the top of the bill. In a strong show, it’s Luwe and Fahlgren who do the brunt of the flexing.
Lost in Yonkers is one of the best plays written by one of America’s most celebrated playwrights. The story is set in 1940s-era New York, just after the United States has entered World War II, and follows two boys, Arty (Fahlgren) and Jay (Luwe), who are forced to stay with their curmudgeonly grandmother while their father, a widower, works as a traveling salesman to pay off debt. If it wasn’t bad enough that mom has passed, dad is leaving and grandma is one mean broad, the boys also have to deal with the mini-dramas surrounding crazy Aunt Bella and bad boy Uncle Louie.
Simon’s play is 80 percent comedy and 20 percent drama, but the heavy parts buckle the mood like the harshest of buzzkills. Grandma Kurnitz carries substantial baggage that was first packed in her native Germany. Her rapport with the family is downright hostile and her first monologue is a vicious verbal slap so biting it could make an orphan feel lucky. Grandma’s attitude has a crippling effect on the rest of the family, leaving the emotionally wounded to turn to Arty and Jay—a little battered themselves, by the way—for comfort and relief.
Luwe and Fahlgren are successful for a couple reasons. First, Simon’s script offers them ample opportunity for laughs, and Luwe, especially, knows how to take advantage. His knack for physical comedy and deft timing, unmistakable in smaller parts in UM’s Peter Pan and Present Laughter, is on full display in the role of a pent-up 15-year-old trying to act older than he is. When asked if he knows that he has big balls, Jay, surprised, responds quickly without losing his formality: “I am aware of them, yes.” Fahlgren, with her hair cropped short to fit the male role, projects the more reckless rebelliousness of Arty, a kid who doesn’t know any better than to outright challenge his grandma. Fahlgren’s pouts and looks of righteous indignation project like spotlights.
What’s more is that when Simon’s play takes its more serious and dramatic turns, Luwe and Fahlgren never shrink from the stage. The adults are supposed to pack the emotional punch here, and they do, but this production never feels more immediate than when the two brothers are the focal points.
That’s no small accomplishment considering the talent collected by the Rep for this tour. The director is New Yorker Kara-Lynn Vaeni, a recent recipient of a master’s degree from the Yale School of Drama who, among many stage productions, worked on Robert De Niro’s feature film The Good Shepherd. Suzy Hunt, an audience favorite in her fifth tour with the Rep, is staunch and stoic as Grandma Kurnitz and spends most of the play seated in her chair staring coldly out at the audience rather than at whomever’s in the room. Jason Donovan Hall (Uncle Louie) seems straight out of Yankee Stadium’s right-field bleachers, and thus is perfect as the streetwise henchman. Lordan Napoli has the difficult role of Aunt Bella, alternately hilariously harebrained and tragically trapped as her grandma’s caregiver, and pulls it off without going completely over the top on either end.
But while each professional carries his or her individual weight, all seem to benefit from the presence of Luwe and Fahlgren. When not stealing scenes with their precocious moxie or infectious naiveté, they act, as Simon intended, as this play’s glue—more engaging, authentic and appealing than anyone else onstage. Whether Jay and Arty ever gain Grandma Kurnitz’s admiration is for the play to decide, but the performances by Luwe and Fahlgren will surely make Missoula proud.
Lost in Yonkers continues through Saturday, Jan. 27, at UM’s Montana Theatre at 7:30 PM with a Saturday matinee at 2 PM. $15/$12 students and seniors.