"Lost in Yonkers" is a valuable addition to that genre of wartime plays that take place in bunkers or trenches.
Though the play is set in 1942 in a comfortable apartment in Yonkers, it has an air of constant tension not unlike Verdun. In some of Simon's plays he creates an air of specious hysteria just to keep the laughs coming. Here that is unnecessary. The laughs all grow out of the situation.
A widower father who owes a huge amount of money gets a job as a traveling salesman and is forced to leave his two young sons with his mother, a glacial woman who has never shown affection to anyone. At first, the play, which abounds in grotesque characters, seems Dickensian in its understanding of childhood as a time of terror and immense strangeness.
Then Simon's real concerns become clearer. In many of his plays he has exploited Jewish characters and situations for comic effect. In the last few years he has begun to take Jewish values seriously, and in "Lost in Yonkers," he tackles the subject with insight and power.
The play focuses on an elderly German-Jewish woman, the matriarch of a family that includes a retarded, pathetically affectionate daughter, a gangster son; a daughter whose breathing goes haywire whenever she visits the dowager, and a son whose spirit the mother has broken, but who, in the course of the play, finds a new strength.
At first, the woman seems more German than Jewish. She came of age in Berlin before World War I and her iron will, her punctiliousness make her seem more a disciple of Bismarck and Clausewitz than a daughter of Zion.
And yet, when she finally - almost contemptuously - speaks in her own defense, we see that what has motivated her has been an obsession with survival.
Moreover, though she does not luxuriate in self-sacrifice in the way that has inspired countless Jewish Mother jokes, we eventually see, to our surprise, that she is profoundly capable of it.
Survival and self-sacrifice have traditionally been Jewish concerns. By addressing them without the usual Jewish stereotypes or cozy humor, Simon has written an unusually tough play.
It is also a wonderfully theatrical one. Gene Saks has directed the play with an intensity and imagination that mine its riches splendidly.
As the mother, Irene Worth assumes the dimensions of a prehistoric monster, her features already rigidified in an ice age of her own creation. She lugs herself around as if she were dragging chains: She is indeed encumbered by a sacrifice she made years ago, a sacrifice she has confided in no one.
Her head is invariably cocked in an air of imperious condescension, like the ruler of some duchy, which, in fact, she is. Worth makes this petty, difficult but ultimately well-intentioned woman seem, as she should, someone of stature.
Mercedes Ruehl, who made such a sexy impression in "Other People's Money," is extraordinarily moving as the gangly, slightly goofy, poignantly generous daughter, particularly in a speech in the second act where she makes clear her own understanding of her plight.
Kevin Spacey plays the gangster with a mesmerizing finesse that only accentuates the menace he represents.
Jamie Marsh, as the older of the two boys, has a face with a remarkable capacity to register varying degrees of horror, all of which have comic impact. As the younger boy, Danny Gerard gives a wonderfully bravura performance. The wrinkled brow of Mark Blum, who plays their father, is as accurate an index of potential ulcers as any hospital chart. Lauren Klein brings great warmth to the role of the aunt with the erratic larynx.
Santo Loquasto sets the tone of the play with his Hopper-like scrim suggesting nostalgia and dislocation. He conveys Simon's darkly comic mood in the plainly furnished apartment and the extroverted costumes.
"Lost in Yonkers" is one of Simon's most impressive and funniest plays.
If Neil Simon had written "Anna Karenina," that final fatal train would have ground to a grinding halt, and the conductor would have leaned out and shouted cherrily to Anna: "All aboard for Disneyland!"
That, I suppose, sums up the bad news about Simon's "Lost in Yonkers," which opened at the Richard Rodgers Theater last night. But the good news is terrific. Not only is it the best play on Broadway - that hardly says too much - it is also, far more impressively, at least for seven-eighths of its length, the best play Simon ever wrote.
Indeed, even accepting the final candy-colored, fondant-flavored ending, where Simon cops out, just as he ultimately copped out with his major dark comedy, "The Gingerbread Lady," this new play is a wonderfully invigorating evening, full of character, insight and that particular humor - call it corned beef on wry - that Simon has made his own.
The time is 1942. World War II is edging its way forward. The place is Yonkers - to be more precise "a two-bedroom apartment over Kurnitz's Kandy Store." You not only see the apartment, designer Santo Loquasto, that poet of place, almost lets you smell it.
Two boys, Jay and Artie, brothers around teen age, are sitting in the worn but neat living room, furtively on edge, scared of messing up the doilies placed on the chairs like antimacassars, waiting for their father to emerge with some kind of news.
Their mother has recently died - and here they are visiting their martinet grandmother, who not merely terrifies them but obviously terrifies their father. The news when it comes is expectedly frightening.
The father, Eddie, has gotten into deadly debt with a moneylender through the mother's final illness - the only way he can dig himself out is to take a salesman job in the South for about a year, leaving the boys in the temporary but grim care of that unbending matriarch.
The grandmother doesn't even want them - and is only reluctantly persuaded to capitulate by a threat put to her by Bella, Eddie's cheerful but backward sister, who is, as one of the boys puts it, "like closed for repairs." We get the picture as soon she returns from the cinema and, on entrance announces: "I couldn't find the theater I was looking for, so I went to the one I found." But soon, as life tortuously continues for this oddball family, we discover there is more to Bella - who has the brain of a child and the mind of a woman - than first appears.
Then there is the rest of the tribe - Uncle Louie, a small-time bagman for small-time hoods who is indomitably in trouble with the mob, and strange Aunt Gert, who as an odd habit of swallowing the end of a sentence into a different octave and a mist of phlegm.
The motto of the family is survival - the grandmother survived anti-Semitism in Germany, Louie will survive the mob, Eddie will survive the South, and everyone will survive Yonkers. But there's a price. As Grandma Kurnitz firmly believes: "You don't survive in this world unless you're like steel." And love and steel make poor partners.
What happens is less important than who it happens to - often the sign of a good play and superior writing - and although Simon sometimes risks an over-glib gag (though even these stay in character) he doesn't really put a foot wrong until the very last scene.
The set-up is Chekhovian. The pay-off is TV/Hollywood at its schmaltziest. Nothing, kids, is as bad as it seems. Even Uncle Louie has the chance to end up a hero. Tragedy has gone with the wind, and even the wind is only mild flatulence. A pity. "Lost in Yonkers" could have been a contender in a league Simon hasn't previously played in, except for that tryout with "The Gingerbread Lady."
Nevertheless, a happy ending never hurt anyone, especially those going to a box-office or walking to a bank. On its own terms "Lost in Yonkers" is perfectly splendid, and I am a mean grouch to let my initial enchantment dribble off into slight, if crucial, disappointment.
Like the play itself, Gene Saks' flawlessly idiomatic and seamless staging, and Loquasto's designs, the impeccable (really impeccable) acting should, when the time comes, reap a sheaf of Tony nominations. Indeed, it's difficult to say who wouldn't deserve one.
In the two leading roles, Irene Worth as the grandmother - both Teutonic and Jewish, with an accent that could break stones and a manner to freeze the Rhine - and Mercedes Ruehl wonderfully fragile and vulnerable as Bella, offer performances fit for the history books. They are remarkable. Until the undernourishment of their last scene, they live in flesh and blood.
Kevin Spacey as Uncle Louie is almost as sensational, sparring his way through the play like a cocky little boxer who knows the fight is fixed but is not sure which way, while Mark Blum as the wimpish father, and Lauren Klein as the aunt with a psychosomatic voice, are both admirable.
And how is it that Simon can write so well for adolescents? And how well the two adolescents here in question, Jamie Marsh as the elder brother and Danny Gerard as the kid, take all the golden opportunities offered!
So Neil Simon has done it again, with a craftsmanship and skill probably unmatched in the contemporary English-speaking theater. Why should we want him to do more? Because his work so often suggests that he can.
Of all the odd couples created by Neil Simon in his 30-year career in the theater, none has been less funny or more passionately acted than the battling mother and daughter indelibly embodied by Irene Worth and Mercedes Ruehl in "Lost in Yonkers," the writer's new memory piece at the Richard Rodgers Theater.
Ms. Worth, her usual elegance obliterated by a silver bun of steel-wool hair, rimless spectacles and a limping stride, is an elderly widow known only as Grandma Kurnitz. A childhood immigrant from Germany to the United States, she has devoted her adulthood to the Yonkers candy store over which she makes her home. Bella, played by Ms. Ruehl, is the 35-year-old child who never moved out and has paid with her life. A gawky woman with an eager smile and a confused, bubbly manner, Bella is, as one line has it, "closed for repairs." Her mind isn't quite right, her existence is bounded by the soda counter, and her development is arrested in early adolescence.
There's some humor in this, but, as one character remarks of Ms. Worth's Grandma, "I never said she was a lot of laughs." One doesn't have to be of German Jewish descent to recognize this ice-cold woman who yanks her face away from anyone who tries to plant a kiss on it and who belittles any relative who attempts to puncture her scowling reserve. She is terrifying, and not primarily because she wields a mean cane. As acted with matchless precision by Ms. Worth, Grandma is a nearly silent killer whose steely monstrousness can be found in the emotions she withholds rather than in whatever faint feelings she might grudgingly express.
As nature dictates, Bella is her opposite, and Ms. Ruehl imbues her with a vulnerability as electric in its way as the comic ferocity she so memorably brought to the role of a hellbent Mafia wife in Jonathan Demme's film "Married to the Mob." All elbows and knees, Ms. Ruehl seems to jitterbug constantly about the parlor, thirsting for any experience or human contact, however small and humdrum, that might come her way before her mother snuffs it out.
Grandma and Bella are on a collision course, and when the blowout arrives, it not only brings "Lost in Yonkers" to a wrenching catharsis, but it also wipes out much of the nostalgically sentimental family portrait that Mr. Simon presented to Broadway audiences in his autobiographical trilogy of the 1980's. Whatever the virtues of the author's Brighton Beach plays, they always seemed a little too roseate to be true. The relatives on stage were guilty of pecadilloes and frailties, never major crimes. That's not the case here, where the only lines referring to the family as a safe haven are bitterly ironic. Grandma has a crushed foot -- from her Berlin childhood -- and she is out to get revenge on the world by crushing anyone or anything in her path. While Mr. Simon's autobiographical cycle officially ended with "Broadway Bound," it is in "Lost in Yonkers" that he seems at last to be baring the most fundamental scar of all, that of a child rejected by a parent.
I don't see how anyone can fail to be moved by the sight of Ms. Ruehl, the lonely repository of this grief, when she stands center stage in Act II of "Lost in Yonkers," crying and begging for the intimacy, physical and otherwise, she has always been so cruelly denied. If this play kept its focus on Bella and Grandma throughout, one might even be able to mention it in the same paragraph, if not necessarily the same breath, as "The Glass Menagerie," "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds" and "Gypsy," among other American classics about lethal mothers and oppressed daughters. But Mr. Simon, whether by sloppiness or design, falls considerably short of this hallowed territory. If he is no longer camouflaging human brutality, he is still packaging it within a lot of fluff, and not always his best fluff at that. While the gripping Grandma-Bella drama is never quite lost in "Lost in Yonkers," it is too frequently crowded out by domestic comedy of a most ordinary sort.
As it happens, the dramatic axis of this play is not usually Bella but Grandma's teen-age grandchildren, a pair of Hollywood-wise boys who share virtually all traits except their names with the brothers in the Brighton Beach plays. They are reluctantly dumped at Grandma's for a period of months by their father, Bella's widowed and broken brother (a vivid Mark Blum), who must take to the road as a salesman to pay off his late wife's hospital bills.
The boys are well enough played by youngsters (Jamie Marsh and Danny Gerard) whose only sin is that they are not Matthew Broderick, but their characters often are as secondary as the Pigeon sisters in "The Odd Couple": the brothers usually seem like wisecracking observers of the play rather than fully realized, fully engaged participants in it. For all their stage time, and all the talk about how much they may or may not be damaged by their own extended exposure to Grandma, their actual conflicts with her are bite-sized sitcom anecdotes, unsullied by the complexities of puberty or much visible fallout from the loss of their mother.
The other characters who pass through the Kurnitz apartment are two more of Grandma's damaged adult children, a daughter (Lauren Klein) who is reduced to a single scene and a single running gag and a mysterious gangster son who, as acted with a commanding mixture of malevolence and avuncularity by Kevin Spacey, presides over some of the play's fresher comic interludes. (Mr. Spacey also makes high drama out of a dazzling curtain line revealing the identity of his true partner in crime.) Like the boys, these supporting players seem to come and go arbitrarily, as if Mr. Simon wanted everyone to hang around to entertain the troops as a way of forestalling the main, troublesome events involving his principal antagonists.
Given this dramatist's recent command of his craft -- let's forget "Rumors" -- the flaccid structure and automatic-pilot jokeyness of "Lost in Yonkers" are unexpected. Among the clumsier lapses are an opening scene of exposition that repeats itself incessantly for no reason other than the hokey, artificial delay of the formidable Grandma's star entrance, and two subsequent scenes that amount to little more than blackout sketches with thudding payoffs. Nearly every joke, theme or plot turn in "Lost in Yonkers" is laboriously telegraphed, to the point where even a playful conversation about a Bette Davis movie is drenched in pregnant meaning and virtually every character's guilty secret is transparent well before anyone onstage wises up. The only real narrative surprise all evening is an abrupt, supposedly shocking Act II sexual confession that seems pulled, unedited, from a Psych 101 textbook.
The passages that surround the confrontations between Ms. Worth and Ms. Ruehl are nothing if not painless, and they have been staged by the estimable Gene Saks with a bravura that sometimes is impressive (a family dinner in Act II) and sometimes overcompensates for the weaker writing and for the expansive confines of the Rodgers, not the coziest of Broadway theaters for non-musical plays.
Ms. Worth excepted, everyone in "Lost in Yonkers" is "on" in the show-biz sense most of the time, which may explain why at the press preview I attended a mood-shattering ovation could break out in the middle of Ms. Ruehl's big soliloquy, as if the actress were belting a medley of show-stopping songs. The whole production could use more of the delicacy to be found in Santo Loquasto's set, which, as affectionately lighted by Tharon Musser, recalls the designer's sepia Coney Island interiors of the same period for Woody Allen's "Radio Days" and, in a richly textured front curtain, the New York chiaroscuro of Reginald Marsh.
If such lightness of touch is otherwise rare, its absence is balanced by the presence of something new in the playwright's canon: a raw anguish that not even the usual (and forced) upbeat final curtain can wish away. "Lost in Yonkers" is hardly Mr. Simon's most accomplished work, but when the riveting Ms. Worth and Ms. Ruehl take center stage to tear at each other and the audience, the wounds run so deep that one feels it just may be his most honest.