Lost in Yonkers is one of those plays. It starts out as the story of two smart-aleck Brooklyn kids forced by circumstance to live with their grandma for a year, with typical Neil Simon one-liner quips, and becomes something far wider as the various aunts and uncles show up to reveal the damage that can come from grandma's tough-and-brutal brand of love.
Canberra Rep's production services the first of these stories wonderfully. It's a very fast-paced production, which works nicely in making sure the jokes land every time, but I found some of the emotional material in the second act felt raced - I would have liked to see a couple of seconds more reaction time in a couple of the later scenes where the truth of how these characters have been living their lives hits home. But I acknowledge this is a personal preference - emotional torment isn't everyone's idea of a good night out, and I expect others will appreciate that this allows the pain to peek through rather than wallowing in it.
The set by Andrew Kay is a sepia-toned beauty that opens up to the full width of the Theatre 3 stage while keeping the action nicely concentrated, and the performances by Lachlan Ruffy (as the older and more responsible of the two brothers) and Pippin Carroll (as the younger and goofier) are gorgeous in their variety.
This year has been a bit of a Ruffy-fest (his performance in "Breaker Morant" saw him being the second-best actor to play two roles only because he happened to share a production with Graheme Robertson, and I've given praise to his work in Cats elsewhere), but this one gives him a chance to be front-and-centre, which he seizes with both hands - heroic and vulnerable, strong and hapless... I have no idea what Ruffy will do next, and from someone I previously considered a friendly face in the chorus ... well, let's just say if the dude does Hamlet next year, I wouldn't be at all surprised and would be popping down my dollars to watch it.
Pippin Carroll meanwhile is delightfully natural in an endearing performance - as the younger and more naive brother, he sparks an audience's protective instincts. The art of being adorable without being annoying is a tricky one (many a child actor has sparked desires to slap them), and Carroll manages it without any visible effort.
As their protective Aunt Bella, Bridgette Black is damn good. Bella's a child in a woman's body, and Black brings it in all its complexity - her glee when she sees something good, her stubbornness when she chooses something she wants, and her heartbreak when hurt. It's an emotionally naked performance of rare skill.
Paul Jackson is the best I've ever seen him (again, he's been popping up a bit lately) as the shifty gangster uncle Louie - performing in his natural accent (or closer to his natural accent, anyway) seems to have unleashed his hidden potential (or maybe just allowed an audience to see what was there all along). Louie isn't nearly as tough as he pretends to be, and Jackson allows just enough of the man-behind-the-curtain sneak through to bring that all-important third dimension to the character.
Elaine Noon is also delightful in her cameo as Aunt Gert - it's a one-joke character and plot-device really (an extra outsider to act as an escape hatch when required), but she sells that one joke and absolutely belongs to the greater family that is the rest of the cast.
Helen Vaughn-Roberts is slightly a victim of the emotional-skimping I mentioned earlier (for example, I would really have loved the revolve at the end of the penultimate scene to happen, say, about ten seconds later for true emotional-shattering effect...), but she is suitably stern while allowing her tough kind of love to glimpse through (in particular, she sells the hell out of the line "It's not important that you like me, it's important that you live").
Colin Milner's accent work was a little unstuck on opening night, but the central heart of his character shined through - the love he has for his children. Hopefully this is a role that will grow throughout the run into something special.
In short, this is an excellent production of a great play with some spectacular performances in it. I have niggles, but ... I suspect this is a case where most audience members won't have the same niggles I do. Well worth watching.