Iron Grandma

Roberta Streicher and Holli Henderson are brilliant in LTW's production of 'Lost in Yonkers'

Neil Simon's Lost in Yonkers would be a superb play if there were less Neil Simon in it. What could be a serious, moving character study with flashes of wit is compromised by Simon's obsession with wisecracks and one-liners. Simon's theatrical blows again and again are weakened by periodic snickering, and too much of what could have been a forceful play ends up with the impact of a pillow fight.

And yet Live Theatre Workshop has mounted a production of it that is assuredly worth seeing; actresses Holli Henderson and Roberta Streicher infuse it with tremendous heart and soul.

The play is set in 1942. To pay off a debt, widower Eddie Kurnitz must undertake a sales trip that's nearly a year long, so he deposits his two teenage sons with his fearsome mother, known to us only as Grandma Kurnitz. She's an elderly German Jewish émigré, limping with a cane as a result of a childhood injury--and that swinging cane, her fist and her will seem to have been fashioned from the same iron. Her adult offspring still fear her.

The two boys hope that the inevitable difficulties of their stay with Grandma Kurnitz will be made bearable by the presence of their Aunt Bella, a childlike 35-year-old who lives with Grandma and helps her run the store below their apartment. But Bella has issues of her own, which only escalate tensions in the household. Nothing is made easier by the arrival of Bella's brother Louie, a mob bagman who seems to be on the lam.

By focusing the early scenes on the two boys, Simon lulls us into expecting this to be a nostalgic coming-of-age story along the lines of his "Eugene" trilogy--Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound. Instead, Simon gradually shifts attention to the more-interesting stories of Bella and Grandma Kurnitz, and the emotional damage done to Bella and her siblings by a mother colder than the ice cream in her soda fountain, a woman still vengeful because of a childhood that was crushed just like her foot.

She's a monster, but Simon can't help showing a little affection for her. Yet Roberta Streicher courageously refuses to play Grandma as merely a grumpy old woman with a heart of gold: Her heart is pure, black coal. It turns out that there is some small justification for this, but Streicher and director Sabian Trout refuse Simon's occasional invitations to soften the character. At the same time, Streicher does not resort to caricature; stern, domineering and manipulative, she goes right to the edge of believability without once teetering over into a cartoonish abyss.

As Bella, Holli Henderson creates a character who is not just a ditz; from the beginning, her portrayal achieves just the right degree of pathos: vulnerability, eagerness to please, loneliness and desperation for human contact. Henderson's performance is heartbreaking and brings much-needed emotional depth to the material.

High schoolers Luke Hawley and Ian Mortensen are game and likable as the kids, but with no disrespect to their abilities, this would be a better play without those characters. The youngsters are merely mouthpieces for Simon's gags, and, as in Broadway Bound, the brothers are a distraction from the much-more-compelling interactions of the adult characters.

Well, most of the adult characters; Simon makes a huge mistake in trotting out another aunt, Gert, whom he saddles with a ridiculous fear-induced speech impediment--the second half of almost every sentence is rasped on an intake of breath. This is supposed to be comic relief, but it falls utterly flat, and poor Kristi Loera, who plays Gert with sincerity, deserves a better fate than this. Couldn't Simon have given her something more believable, like an intermittent stutter?

Keith Wick has some fine moments as the swaggering Louie, and Eric Anson brings sanity to the proceedings as Eddie, the only well-adjusted member of the family.

Even though parts of some of the big dramatic speeches are just a bit too facile, this could have been a terrific tragicomedy worthy of the Pulitzer and Tony it somehow won in 1991, if Simon had eliminated the two kids and their one-liners, and had beefed up the roles of Bella's siblings. Instead, what we get is a sentimental, soft-edged Neil Simon imitation of Tennessee Williams, sort of a Barefoot in the Glass Menagerie. The play itself could be improved, but it's hard to imagine better performances than we get from Streicher and Henderson.

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