NJT does justice to Neil Simon’s finest work

The cast of ‘Lost in Yonkers’ performed at The New Jewish Theater.PHOTO: Peter Wochniak. 

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Neil Simon may very well be the most commercially successful playwright in American history. At one point, he had five shows running at the same time on Broadway. But it was only when Simon’s poignant and powerful drama “Lost in Yonkers” won both a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize in drama 30 years ago, that he gained long overdue respect as a first-rate dramatist. 

The New Jewish Theater does a stellar job upholding all that is right in this fine play with a terrific production, superbly directed by Doug Finlayson and featuring a dazzling, totally believable and endearing cast.

Although not considered one of Simon’s three autobiographic plays (“Brighton Beach Memoirs,” “Biloxi Blues” and “Broadway Bound”), “Lost in Yonkers” most definitely has autobiographical elements, especially in the lead roles of two brothers enmeshed in a highly dysfunctional family situation, which was very much the case with Simon and his older brother Danny. What sets “Lost in Yonkers” apart from nearly all previous Simon plays is its poignancy and often-somber tone. While there are plenty of humorous asides and one-liners in “Yonkers,” the play has more in common with “Death of a Salesman” than with “The Odd Couple.”

“Lost in Yonkers” takes place in 1942, seven years after the pre-war action in “Brighton Beach Memoirs.” The United States and its Allies are in the midst of World War II and the menace of Adolf HItler and the Nazis is of course especially obvious to American Jews. The lead character is Jay Kurnitz, age 15, who is very close to his 13-year-old brother Arty.   Their widowed father, Eddie, confesses to them that he borrowed a large sum from a “loan shark” and will have to become a traveling salesman down South for several months to earn enough to pay off the lender who has threatened his life if he fails to do so. In desperation, Eddie reluctantly places the boys in the “care” of his “severe, frightfully intimidating” mother, who lives with Eddie’s mentally slow and overly trusting sister, Bella.

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The audience can palpably experience the pain of the two brothers, who bravely and defensively make fun of the tyrannical Grandma Kurnitz, their pathetic and often comically naive Aunt Bella and their Aunt Gert, who suffers from a breathing disorder brought on by the frightening abuses of the Grandma. She is a bitter and broken woman who walks with a cane because a horse had crushed her foot during a political rally when she was a child in Germany.

Nancy Lewis as Grandma Kurnitz dominates the stage, controlling nearly everyone in her presence with scowls, scorn or her cane, which she often uses to assault or threaten those around her into obeying her relentless commands. 

Robert Love as older brother Jay and Leo B. Ramsey as kid brother Arty are beautifully cast. Forced into a horrific household against their will, they must accommodate as best they can. Jay, has a more practical take on their dilemma and seeks to find an avenue of escape from Grandma’s House of Horrors. Arty resorts more often to spot-on imitations of Grandma and Aunts Bella and Gert.

Even when Jay and Arty crack jokes and laugh to relieve the tension of living under Grandma’s cane, there is an edge of sadness to their lines. Simon has often been criticized for giving his characters an exaggerated talent for stand-up comedian one-liners. The audience laughs when Jay and Arty make humorous observations, but there is an undertow of authentic sadness that accompanies each line.

Other stand-out performances include Gary Glasgow as the guilt-ridden Dad Eddie, who stays in touch with the boys with frequent letters from his travels to Southern states; Michael Scott Rash as Eddie’s bargain basement petty mobster brother Louie, who teaches the boys what “moxie” is through a series of threatening body language twitches that remind one of the “Ya talkin’ to me?” scenes by Robert De Niro in “Taxi Driver.” Louie, in contrast to his often cringing and cowering brother Eddie, can stand up to Grandma, and equips the boys with some needed masculine counter-strength to fend off her abuses.

One of the strongest performances is that of Kelley Weber as Aunt Bella. As an immature, loving, 35-year-old woman who has been treated as a “child” because of intellectual challenges and emotional instability, she is totally convincing as she summons the courage to strike out on her own to live as a fully realized woman with a husband and a job even if she eventually fails at both. Sigrid Sutter as the wheezing but well-meaning Aunt Gert rounds out the excellent cast.

In “real life,” Simon and his older brother, Danny, grew up in a household in which their father, a fabric salesman, would often take off for months at a time, and who would frequently have melodramatic confrontations with their mother. In his brutally honest memoir, “Rewrites,” Simon says that the trauma of growing up in such a volatile and unstable household blocked not his ability to love, but to allow himself to be loved. Those conflicted emotions are writ large in “Lost in Yonkers,” which is brought gloriously to life in the NJT’s season opener.