There’s a good reason Lost in Yonkers doesn’t feel like any other Neil Simon play. Quite apart from being the most successful comic playwright in American history, Simon was stung by the charge that his amusing creations lacked substance and depth and were little more than classy sitcoms. One response was his autobiographical “BB” series: Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound. Lost in Yonkers is giant step beyond those, an honest-togod drama with an emotion-rattling second-act climax that invites comparison with The Glass Menagerie. Simon’s ability to make an audience smile first, then clutch at its heart, won Lost in Yonkers a richly deserved Pulitzer Prize as well as a Tony Award.
For all of Yonkers’ prestige, it is performed rarely, only once locally in 20 years. There’s a good reason for that, too: casting. Much of the burden of the play, including all its exposition, must be borne by two youngsters, 15-year-old Jay (short for Jacob) Kurnitz, the more earnest brother, and 13-year-old, more ironic Arty, who first appears wearing knickers but gets more of the wittier lines. To fill these roles for the mounting from Appleseed Productions, at the Atonement Lutheran Church, 116 W. Glen Ave., director C.J. Young clearly did some searching.
Ethan Zoeckler as Jay has no previous stage credits and was the product of home schooling until the seventh grade. Gabe DiGenova, from the Expeditionary Learning Middle School in Syracuse, has had some small parts at the Redhouse, but nothing like this. Together they have to win our confidence, presenting contrasting personalities, but not stealing scenes, because they are only part—but not the center—of the real action.
The boys are “lost” in Yonkers because of their father’s need to travel in 1942, the first full year of U.S. participation in World War II. Eddie (Scott Pflanz) incurred debts with a loan shark during the recent death from cancer of his wife, the boys’ mother, and now must pay them off. With the wartime rise in prices, he is taking scrap metal to sell in Southern states, a hostile environment for a Jew from New York.
Eddie, considered a weakling by his steel-hearted German-born mother (Marcia Mele), pleads with her to let the boys stay and help out in the confectionary store downstairs. The old girl refuses, but her childlike 36-year-old daughter Bella (Pamela Kelley) is more indulgent. Pflanz’s Eddie sheds real tears, but he’s a determined trooper, sending regular and encouraging reports from states where all the food is fried.
In Grandma Kurnitz, Mele, a performer known almost exclusively for musical comedy, gives us a monster of parsimoniousness, financially as well as emotionally. The boys must cough up hard-won pennies for any pretzels missing during their watch. She boasts, “I buried a husband and two children—and I didn’t cry.” Her most common metaphor is steel, and we know this means her heart. Simon gives no sign that he’s going to go wobbly on us and allow Grandma one tiny break of softness.
Bella is a far riskier creation and possibly the most volatile in the whole Simon corpus. While she’s smiling and generous, she’s given to air-headed declarations of the kind that blondes make in forwarded email jokes. Her sweetness can give way to a sharp rebuke to the boys when she wrongly infers a slight from an innocent remark. We know from her frequent references to “the home” that her position is precarious, entirely dependent on an uncaring mother.
Only the movies give her respite. “I felt happy for all the actors in the movie to be in an air-conditioned theater,” Bella says. At the bijou she finds solace for her lonely heart with Johnny, the head usher, who wants to marry her. He still lives with his parents and might be 30, or maybe 40.
Pamela Kelley, whose credits list Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest, knows how to get the snap in Simon’s dialogue. At the same time, the pathos and desperation in her characterization assure that we are never laughing at her but instead, like the boys, pin our emotions on her.
Engaging in a quite different way is the last Kurnitz sibling to appear, Louie (Ty Marshal), a small-time Runyonesque hoodlum who packs a pistol under his belt. Worried that an ominous black Studebaker has been parked near the house, Louie pays the boys to give misinformation to whomever should ask and also dispenses the hard wisdom of the street. If the boys ever plan to rob someone, they can rule out getting rich fast.
A great part of Louie’s appeal comes from Marshal’s bravura performance. Nattily dressed in a fedora and striped suit, Marshal’s Louie could have stepped out of a production of Guys and Dolls. Along with a certain Mephistophelian sulfurousness (“Nothing sweeter than danger, eh?”), Louie is also enormous fun, whatever nefariousness he happens to be about.
The contrasting visions of Bella and Louie lead to Yonkers’ central confrontation, although we do not see it coming.
It is not, as we might have expected, a challenge to Grandma’s tyranny or any attempt to restore father Eddie’s dignity and sense of worth. Instead, it is a headto-head battle between two characters we have come to like in different ways and who have no long-standing enmity between one another.
The conflict comes also with very un-Simonesque irony and ambiguity, as well as a complete lack of sentiment. On one side we have Bella, the needy self-deceiver, and on the other side we have Louie, the sleazy yet charming chronic liar. Which of them has a better handle on the truth?
Lost in Yonkers is artistic honcho Young’s only directing assignment for the season, and his months of preparation are evident everywhere. He convinced Aubry Ludington Panek, one of community theater’s most popular performers, usually seen as a glamorous leading lady, to take on the small character role of Cousin Gert, so terrorized by Grandma that she can barely speak. All the performances are strong, none more than Mele’s authentically accented Grandma, actually chilling at times, from a face we associate most readily with smiles, songs and funny stories.
Production values run high for Lost in Yonkers, beginning with Rhiannon Randall’s period costumes, including Louie’s striped suit. Darian Sundberg’s production design includes a set with slamming doors, a bathroom with visible porcelain fixtures, and an open window at stage right, handy for shouting. Bryan Simcox’s sound design brings us the voices and music of 1942, the year that playwright Simon would have been the same age as Jay Kurnitz. Simon might have grown up in Brighton Beach, but he knows how to find in Yonkers what eluded him elsewhere. o
This production runs through March 2.
See Events for information.