Sunday, March 18, 2012

Lost (and Found) in Yonkers

The boys greet Grandma Kurnitz.  Photo by Stephen Kunken

Nobody likes Grandma Kurnitz, and it’s not hard to figure why.  She is a curmudgeon’s curmudgeon, tough and mean-spirited as they come, the steely controlling center of Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers, now in view in a first-rate revival by The Actors Company Theatre company (TACT) at Theatre Row’s Beckett Theatre

Lost in Yonkers first appeared on Broadway in 1991, five years after the final play in what is sometimes referred to as the “Eugene Triology” (Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, and Broadway Bound). 

Anyone with knowledge of those earlier works will find some elements of Lost in Yonkers that seem familiar.  Like its predecessors, this is a coming-of-age story, featuring, in this instance, not one but two precocious teenage boys.  And, as you might expect, it also includes lots of clever Simonesque wisecracks. 

What makes Lost in Yonkers a richer work is the sense that you are being given an inside look at a very real and troubled family, with enough unpredictable turns to keep it from becoming yet another Simon saga of a World War II-era family, an affectionate but not quite believable sugared memoir that covers up the scary parts. 

Lost in Yonkers begins with a visit to Grandma Kurnitz (Cynthia Harris, co-artistic director of TACT) by her anxious widowed son Eddie (Dominic Comperatore), with his boys, Jay (Matthew Gummley) and Arty (Russell Posner), in tow.  Eddie has had little to do with his mother for many years, and she has seen her grandsons—now 15 and 13—only a handful of times. Nevertheless, Eddie has come crawling back to the family home in order to beg his mother to let the boys stay with her for the better part of a year.  He needs to go away to earn the money to pay back the loan shark who had covered his wife’s final medical expenses, and he has nowhere else to turn.

With this setup, It does seem that we can expect the inevitable march toward a happy family ending, in which the boys and their grandmother learn to appreciate one another.  But Simon either abandoned that path or intended another one all along.  For while Jay and Arty are still significant players, they become observers and commentators, while the meat of the play examines Grandma Kurnitz and the still-festering wounds she has caused to her now-grown children. In addition to Eddie, we spend time with his sisters Bella (Finnerty Steeves) and Gert (Stephanie Cozart), and their brother Louie (Alec Beard)—all of whom have spent their lives living in fear of their mother’s icy hold over them and all of whom have been damaged in different ways.

When one character says of Grandma Kurnitz, who owns and runs a candy story beneath her immaculately ordered apartment, that “she’d know if salt was missing from a pretzel,” you are invited to laugh, as long as it is out of her hearing, because you understand that it is absolutely true. 

At the early preview I saw, the entire cast was already uniformly strong and functioning as a tight-knit ensemble. Special kudos should go to Ms. Steeves as the emotionally stifled and developmentally-delayed Bella, reminiscent of Laura Wingfield in that other well-known memory play, Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie

Under the excellent direction of Jenn Thompson, and aided in no small part by the perfect scenic design by John McDermott, Lost in Yonkers even allows for a little sympathy towards Grandma Kurnitz, as we gain some insights into the cause of her own bitter toughness.  There is a moment towards the end in which she shows the audience (though not her family) a momentary glimpse of happiness that is both startling and revelatory.

Lost in Yonkers is a bit messy as the center of attention moves from character to character like a hot potato being tossed around, yet the place where it ultimately lands is most satisfying and appropriate. In the end, it doesn’t much matter whether this is a reflection of Simon’s actual recollections or purely a work of imagination.  There is a ring of truth that undoubtedly contributed to the original production’s walking away with a Pulitzer Prize and multiple Tony Awards and that makes this revival a rich and valuable theatrical experience.

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