Lost in Yonkers, by Neil Simon. Directed by Jenn Thompson. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"You don't survive in dis vorld vitout being like steel!"
Jake Giordano and Matt Gumley as Arty and Jay; photo: Kevin Sprague
In 1942, a recent Jewish widower, in need of money, takes a job traveling and decides to leave his orphaned sons with his mother, a German/Jewish haridan with no time, no love and no interest to share with her grandchildren. Reluctantly the two boys and their grandmother attempt to make this work with the help of the boys' Aunt Bella, mentally challenged and approaching total spinsterhood, who also lives her mother. Compounding this awkward arrangement their uncle returns to the nest, temporarily, bringing with him the odd allure of gangsterism, guns and a bag full of other people's money. This sounds like the perfect setup for an Arthur Miller melodrama but it is in reality a Neil Simon comedy. It is also the Drama Desk, Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning play of 1991, "Lost in Yonkers" and it has taken the stage at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, MA.
This is a comedy in the classic Greek theater sense: nobody in it dies. It is also a comedy in the more traditional Neil Simon style: there are yocks galore. However this time there is death to deal with in several ways: the boys' mother has recently died; Grandma has outlived two of her six children and she believes "not dying before them is my sin;" Jews are dying in Europe at the hand of the Nazis; Bella Kurnitz's lust for life is dying in her new middle-aged mindset. In his broader comedies we laughed without guilt at the hilarious goings-on of newlyweds, of newly divorced men, of retired Vaudevillians. In Simon's autobiographical comedy trilogy we laughed at learning about sex, about compulsive behavior, about making career choices. In his history plays we laughed at the realities of working in an arena of comedy where the daily challenge was to stay alive and keep laughter in front of you at all times.
This play was a major departure for the author. Here, for the first time since "Come Blow Your Horn" in 1961, he put his pen to paper to bring to light the measure of loss that formed a union between brothers that could withstand all outside influence. The play garnered major awards for him for the first time and also established the career of an outstanding actress, Mercedes Ruehl, helped to further the careers of Kevin Spacey and Irene Worth and Mark Blum, and altered the way the world looked at Neil Simon and all that had come before.
On the Pittsfield stage director Jenn Thompson, no slouch at transforming high-end comedies, has given us a production of "Lost in Yonkers" that allows us to do what Grandma Kurnitz has never done and her children have been forbidden to do, to cry. This family has been wrenched by circumstances out of the ordinary and dropped into a bowl with an electric egg-beater moving them around like so much whipped egg-whites. The meringue of comedy is flavored here with the bitter salt tears of emotional abandonment and Thompson never lets us forget that the people in this Yonkers apartment are all there, not because they want to be there, but because their choices have not been ample.
Dominic Comperatore plays Eddie Kurnitz, the father who is compelled by circumstance to abandon his children to the one person in the world who will never understand them. He plays the angst of separation wonderfully and we feel, along with him, the difficulty of his situation. When he returns for them two acts and ten months later the agony of redeeming them is almost as overwhelming and, again, Comperatore plays the emotional underside of the relationship with his family. It is pure Eugene O'Neill in the performance and the Simon laugh lines that he has are perfect pieces of comic punctuation at times of great emotional duress.
The boys are played with so much surety that it is almost like eaves-dropping on a real room in a real place a really long time ago. Matt Gumley is Jay, the older brother and Jake Giordano is his kid brother Arty. They work together as though they'd always known each other, their physical relationship has that oh-so-familiar appeal to it. Gumley has an amazing way with his lines, never playing for the comedy and never missing a laugh. Giordano is his equal most of the time, although as written he is a wise-guy and as played he is approaching it all the time. In other Simon family plays these boys would be the center of attention, but not in this play, even as good as they are in their roles.
This play is centered on Aunt Bella. Played here by Paula Jon DeRose, Bella, born with a defect, is quixotic and moody, overly expressive, emotionally rocky and excessively childish in her willingness to partake in anything others deem fun for her. DeRose has found the perfect balance between the unusual sanity that keeps Bella functional and the dreaminess that keeps her hopeful in spite of her hideous dependence on a mother who can be of no help to her in the practical world. Twice DeRose moved me to tears with the depth of her compassion for others and the mammoth amount of need her character expresses with words and gestures.
As her mother, the boys' grandmother, Lynn Cohen has the hardest job of all. We must come to understand her to appreciate her at all. If that isn't achieved then she is just a hateful old woman who someone should push down the stairs into the candy store below. Cohen is very hard in this production. There is no sparkle in her Grandma Kurnitz at all. We know her defeats and her defenses but we do not know her delights if there are any for her. Bella drops hints: coffee cake, strudel, other delicacies. Others remark on her work ethic and her insistence on charging her own children for scoops of ice cream, pretzels or pistacchio nuts gone missing. But in Lynn Cohen's face there is nothing. Instead, she uses her walk to show us that she has feelings she supresses. She uses her cane and her large down-turned mouth to show us she is actually inside the tiny, wizened body we can see. Her subtle performance is almost too subtle, but it is necessarily so. She walks the spokes of a picket fence in this show and she handles it brilliantly.
As Uncle Louie, a very difficult character to like, David Christopher Wells delivers a fine performance with echoes of Comperatore's younger brother in his own work. The family relationship is evident in Wells' delivery of lines and his physical relationship with his nephews. His sister Gert, whose speech difficulties are exacerbated by proximity to her mother, is nicely played by Stephanie Cozart.
The physical production is handsome and evocative of the period and the people. John McDermott's minimalist setting works easily and Jennifer Caprio's costumes are excellent. Martin E. Vreeland has lit the show to perfection and Toby Algya's sound design is fine. Jenn Thompson has given Simon his due and shown a new audience what it takes to finally qualify for a Pulitzer Prize when one is a sitcom writer with a long string of hits and near-misses. This is one to cherish for all the right reasons.
Paula Jon DeRose and Lynn Cohen as Bella and Grandma Kurnitz; photo: Kevin Sprague
Giordano, Gumley and Dominic Comperatore as Eddie; photo: Kevin Sprague
Lost in Yonkersplays through August 1 on the Boyd-Quinson Mainstage at Barrington Stage Company, located at 30 Union Street, Pittsfield, MA. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-236-8888 or go on line at barringtonstageco.org.