Lost in Yonkers
TACT presents a solid gold revival of Neil Simon's Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a troubled family.
The young men's command of technique is striking, but that doesn't mean other members of the cast -- most notably the superb Cynthia Harris as their ultra-stern immigrant grandmother and Finnerty Steeves as their hyperactive, often confused Aunt Bella -- aren't giving as good as they're getting. Indeed, the entire cast mines Simon's autobiographical backward glance for every comic and dramatic moment infused in it.
Set when the Western world was at war, the emotionally charged piece is concerned with the literally and figuratively wounded in a much more domestic environment. As the play begins Jay and Artie are sitting in Grandma Kurnitz's living-room while their father Eddie (Dominic Comperatore) is in an unseen next room trying to persuade his mother to take the boys in. He needs to go on the road in the South to make $9000 for repaying a loan shark -- money he borrowed in order to see his deceased wife through terminal cancer.
When Grandma Kurnitz enters to size up the on-best-behavior boys, she says an adamant no. But the put-upon, starved-for-companionship Bella insists on the new arrangement. For the rest of the two acts, the boys not only clash with their disciplinarian grandmother but are caught up in troubles caused by Bella, who's met a man she hopes to marry
Then there's morally amoral gangster uncle Louis (Alec Beard), who's also holing up at the crowded apartment because he's run into trouble with his associates. And eventually, Aunt Gert (Stephanie Cozart) joins the others in the many anguished attempts to resolve what ails them not only psychologically but physically.
Several times during the evocatively titled Lost in Yonkers the characters describe one another as either having steel in their make-up or lacking it. And throughout Simon's depiction of the steely hand with which Grandma Kurnitz rules her home -- and the unseen downstairs candy store she runs with Bella and into which he installs Jay -- he never allows sentimentality to leaven the harsh proceedings.
Before the play reaches fade-out, we learn how Grandma -- then a Jewish girl in Hitler's Berlin -- was exposed to unforgettable, unforgivable cruelty, which has made her become who she is. At the same time, he doesn't forgive her for the misplaced retribution she's visited on her children. Nor does he entirely forgive them for their hardened attitudes towards her.
Indeed, the importance of this play in Simon's oeuvre is that never before or since has he demonstrated so convincingly that laughing matters when it come to issues which, at first consideration, resolutely seem non-laughing matters.