LOST IN YONKERS Send This Review to a Friend
Neil Simon’s serious yet often funny play “Lost in Yonkers,” produced on Broadway in 1991, is getting a loving revival by TACT (The Actors Company Theatre), complete with outstanding performances and understanding direction by Jenn Thompson. It is gratifying to find Simon’s play, set in 1942, getting the rediscovery it so richly deserves, especially in the wake of the premature closing of the excellent revival of his “Brighton Beach Memoirs.”
Two brothers, Jay, 15, and Arty, 13, have some of the best lines, and it is no secret that there is autobiographical material there, with the younger Arty probably representing Simon, but as played by endearing Russell Posner looking like a budding Woody Allen, and the older brother Jay, played with moxie by Matthew Gumley, recalling Simon’s brother Danny.
The boys have lost their mother to cancer and their father Eddie (Dominic Comperatore) is struggling to pay back a dangerous loan shark debt and needs to take a job away from the New York area. The plan: plant the boys at the house of Grandma (Cynthia Harris) for a year. The problem: Grandma is a bitter, tough lady who prizes her privacy and the last thing she wants is grandson boarders.
Grandma has a daughter, Bella (Finnerty Steeves), living at home, and Bella is a sad case, a woman in her late thirties who isn’t always playing with a full deck. She is good-natured but simple-minded and forgetful. Bella has met an usher at the movies and she says he wants to marry her, and needs $5,000 so they can open up a restaurant together. We know Bella can get her heart broken. Steeves is great in the role—likable, moving and to be pitied and worried about. The confrontational scene that she has with Grandma can break your heart.
As for Cynthia Harris as Grandma, I have seen her give numerous excellent performances, but this one is a special tour de force. Harris gets the bitterness down firmly, yet always with dignity that masks the past. Grandma was a victim of Hitler’s oppression before coming to America and her back story has set the stage for the anger that seethes within her. Harris is master of the art of giving a look that hints at a humanity that’s also within her. But the performance, as well as Simon’s writing, never is betrayed by sentimentality. I salute Harris and Steeves for giving two of the season’s finest performances.
Of course, Simon can’t help being funny. When Arty objects to Grandma’s penchant for perpetual scolding, while taking cognizance of the hard past she has endured, he remarks that she should complain to Hitler.
Alec Beard makes the most of a colorful role of Louie, Grandma’s son, who is a shady. wheeler-dealer, carries a gun and apparently is in gangster trouble. Louie tries to give his nephews some advice about life, and Jay admirably stands up to his platitudes. Stephanie Cozart is effective as Bella’s sister with a difficult breathing problem.
We get a portrait of a family that is convincing in its realistic characterizations, and while Simon peppers the talk with lines that are funny, he never loses sight of the poignancy in the situation. Melodramatics climax the play, but they are earned. I recall that when I saw “Lost in Yonkers” originally, I was impressed with Simon’s effort to write a more overtly serious play than expected of him. This fine production gives that play added power. At the Beckett Theatre, Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, $20-$56.25. Phone: 212-239-6200.