Story: Eddie Kurnitz is in dire straits in 1942. He put himself in hock to loan sharks to acquire the money he needed to help make his cancer-stricken wife’s remaining months more bearable. Now, his wife has passed and Eddie realizes he must honor his debt. As fate would have it, he has acquired a lucrative sales job that will enable him to pay back the sharks in about a year. To do this, though, will require that he spend most of his life on the road.
Therefore, he needs to find someone who will take care of his two teen-age sons, Jay and Arty. He hesitantly visits his demanding mother, a stern immigrant who has raised her children with an iron hand and an unflinching heart. Two of her six children are deceased, and the remaining four have grown into adulthood in fear of their widowed and emotionally distant mother. Now, Eddie must ask Mrs. Kurnitz to share with her two rowdy grandsons the spotless Yonkers apartment in which she and her mentally challenged daughter Bella reside.
Highlights: Prolific playwright Neil Simon made a fabulously successful career out of penning witty comedies that feature wise-cracking characters, usually taking on the impersonal but emotionally sustaining hustle and bustle of New York City. Lost in Yonkers is a notable departure from that milieu, a serious work that garnered Simon the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1991.
Simon once noted that children who are the products of an unhappy marriage and are deprived of a household filled with love, much like Simon himself was, “end up emotionally damaged and lost.” Such is the case with Jay and Arty, whose painful transition from a house with warm and loving parents to the frigid climate of their grandmother’s abode is touchingly rendered by director Doug Finlayson and his strong cast in the current New Jewish Theatre presentation.
Other Info: Lost in Yonkers has considerable similarity to Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs, which last month opened The Rep’s 2012-13 season, the first Simon work to be mounted by The Rep in its illustrious history. That story, though, is primarily a comedy with dramatic underpinnings, whereas Lost in Yonkers is effectively a drama with comedic moments.
he difference may seem a matter of semantics, but it’s more than that. The humor mined in this sober study is more a nervous reaction to uncomfortable situations rather than Simon’s patented defense mechanism against the injustices of everyday life. Grandma Kurnitz, for example, is a pretty nasty human being, even given the substantial adversity she’s faced in her life. This is no woman with a heart of gold, but a shrewd businesswoman who stoically and stolidly presses on with her duties and considers love a lavish luxury. As portrayed precisely by Nancy Lewis in a beautifully calibrated performance, Grandma Kurnitz allows only the slightest openings into her vaulted heart.
Lewis is contrasted nicely by Kelley Weber as her confused daughter Bella. A bout with scarlet fever at birth left Bella with a brain that functions only sporadically. She’s smart enough, though, to know that she desperately wants the warmth and comfort of true love, and she slogs on determinedly to find it, showing her nephews what embodies true courage.
Gary Glasgow turns in a marvelous performance as Eddie, a grown man who still cowers in the presence of his unflinching mother, a woman who callously admits her dislike of his late wife and still reminds him with a glare to keep her anti-septic home in pristine condition. Glasgow also shows, though, a quiet strength and love that his boys admire.
Michael Scott Rash is a breath of fresh air as Uncle Louie, a bag man for the mob who impresses his nephews with his braggadocio and his ‘moxie,’ which he humorously describes in physical fashion for the admiring teens. Louie has a dark side, however, which erupts as quickly and mysteriously as the $5 bills he magically inserts into his nephews’ pockets.
Robert Love handles the pivotal role of Jay with considerable polish, protecting his younger brother, entreating his father and slowly working up the resolve to challenge his dictatorial grandmother. He comes to the aid of his overmatched aunt as well in some heart-rending scenes. As Arty, Leo Ramse plays the younger brother with wide-eyed elation or sudden bursts of tears, the type of emotion that Grandma considers a sign of weakness. Sigrid Sutter completes the cast in a fine turn as Eddie’s tortured sister Gert, who suffers a curious speaking malady only in the company of her icy mother.
Justin Barisonek’s set design reflects Grandma’s philosophy of ‘everything in its place,’ suitably addressed with an abundance of props from Meg Brinkley. Michael Sullivan’s lighting is particularly effective on Louie’s nocturnal visit home, and the costumes designed by Michele Friedman Siler convey both the era and the character’s respective personalities. Robin Weatherall’s sound design subtly complements proceedings.
Lost in Yonkers is a different take by Simon on some of his familiar character types and a richly rewarding one at that.
Play: Lost in Yonkers
Group: New Jewish Theatre
Venue: Wool Studio Theatre, 2 Millstone Campus Drive
Dates: October 10, 11, 13, 14, 17, 18, 20, 21
Tickets: $35-$39; contact 442-3283 or newjewishtheatre.org
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Peter Wochniak