Neil Simon is one of the most prolific and popular playwrights in American history. His Lost in Yonkers—which won him both the Tony Award for Best Play and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama—is a touching and funny story which Arizona Theatre Company has embraced in a near-perfect production of what is ultimately a less-than-perfect play.
Richly humorous and populated with über-quirky characters, Lost in Yonkers is a battlefield on which soft, vulnerable hearts battle with a steely, hardened one. As directed by Samantha K. Wyer, the production demonstrates Simon's great skill at playmaking, combining wonderfully drawn characters, a keen sense of how to allow a great story to unfold onstage, and, of course, his clever wit and delicious humor, uncompromised even in a story with a very serious streak.
It's 1942, and in the overly long opening scene, we are introduced to brothers Artie (Maxx Carlisle-King), 13, and Jay (Ryan DeLuca), 15, in their grandmother's stiflingly hot parlor. In her bedroom, their father, Eddie (Spencer Rowe), is trying to convince his mother to take in his two boys for a year while he takes to the road in an effort to earn enough money to repay debts he incurred while the boys' late mother was ill.
Grandma Kurnitz (Judy Kaye) is not an easy person to ask for anything, especially something as disruptive as the introduction of two boys into her rigid world. We also learn from the boys' conversation that the whole family is, well, wacky. More accurately, they have been made so by the emotional bruising from their mother. There's Aunt Bella (Kate Goehring), who lives with Grandma and has marbles rolling around in her head, according to Jay. It's a judgment borne out when we meet her, although we can also see more completely that she is really a sweet but dimwitted 35-year-old child. Their roaming uncle Louie (Preston Maybank) is a shadowy figure, a hoodlum which, to the boys, gives him a fascinatingly dangerous mystique. And then there's Aunt Gert (Kerry McCue), who has a peculiar speech impediment born of emotional trauma, which Jay imitates to Artie's great delight.
Simon works these boys to death while he builds up to Grandma's appearance, which has to be one of the most anticipated theatrical entrances since Dolly Levi took to the staircase at the Harmonia Gardens. Grandma's entrance is much less graceful and elegant, as we hear her cane pounding in a menacing rhythm on the floor. She is everything we expect her to be, and then some. Hard, headstrong and heartless, she's just plain mean. But she allows the boys to move in.
Simon flirts with serious drama in many of his scripts, but he also seems rather leery of it. From what we have seen in the opening scenes, it seems Simon's story is about the boys and how they get along—or don't—with this mean old woman. Simon is comfortable with this territory; he's made his living exploiting these kinds of conflicts, which he mines for every ounce of humor and sentiment. But the boys are neither the core of Simon's script nor its dramatic force. Those distinctions belong to Bella and her mother, and the hell that breaks loose when Bella announces her wishes to marry a movie-theater usher. They will open a restaurant, she gushes, and have babies which she will hold and love with the same intensity with which love and affection have been withheld from her. This conflict, which Simon introduces deep in the play, is a major shifting of gears. It's as though this is the story he really wanted to tell, but he didn't trust that he could get there unless he deployed his dependable bag of playwriting tricks.
This story is further complicated by the extreme makeup of these two characters. It's a huge job for an actor to find a way to make Grandma at least marginally sympathetic. And since Bella is such an innocent, how could she possibly bring the depth of insight she does when, to everyone's wide-eyed amazement, she challenges her mother?
Although Simon does not make it easy, Kaye and Goehring make it work. Kaye somehow manages to make Grandma Kurnitz both despicable and tolerable, as she signals in indeterminate ways a wish to be validated for what she sees as her strength and her good intentions to fortify her children. There are very few discernable chinks in her armor, but we are eager to notice them when they are revealed.
Goehring's Bella is a whirlwind of enthusiasm and misinformation. In contrast to her tightly wound mother, Bella is so loose that it seems she could spin apart if not tethered by fear to her mother's needs. Goehring's performance is crazily balletic, and her need to be held, to be touched, to have company other than her mother, is achingly palpable.
Carlisle-King and DeLuca are a charming duo of bright, innocent boys. They are our tour guides for the story; Grandma and Bella are each so skewed that it would be difficult to make sense of this strange landscape if we didn't see it through their eyes. Maybank, as Louie, gives a restrained and sensitive performance without a hint of slick gangster hyperbole. McCue makes a great Gert in her short time onstage, and Rowe's characterization of Eddie is OK, but he doesn't come across as desperate and downtrodden as it seems Eddie should be.
With the set, costumes, lighting and sound beautifully supporting the storytelling, ATC's production surmounts the script's weaknesses, and we are delighted and touched. The play may not be a perfect piece, but it's a darn good one.