“Lost in Yonkers” begins in 1942, with the death of Evelyn Kurnitz. After incurring a massive debt of $9,000, which roughly equates to $143,000 today, Evelyn’s widower, Eddie, played by Scott Ballou, must take a job as a traveling scrap metal salesman to pay off a loan shark. Jay (Zack Hansen) and Arty (Harper Bowie), Eddie’s early-teenage boys, are forced to stay with their slightly estranged grandmother, stern like steel from a horrendous upbringing in Germany, and their aunt, a mentally challenged 35-year-old woman. Meanwhile, their gangster uncle Louie (Shane Reeves) is in trouble, hiding out from a man named Hollywood Harry, and World War II looms in the backdrop, a world, and a family it seems, at war with itself.
But don’t let the set up fool you; this is a comedy.
To begin its 2018 season, Theatrikos Theatre Company brings Neil Simon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play to the Doris Harper-White Community Playhouse for the month of February.
“Lost in Yonkers” debuted in 1990 at the Center for the Performing Arts in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. When it eventually moved to Broadway at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, it became an instant hit, winning a handful of awards including a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actress in a Play (Mercedes Ruehl), a Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Play (Kevin Spacey) and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Almost 30 years later, “Lost in Yonkers” remains one of Simon’s best works, capturing the humor and heart of a family trying to survive its own dysfunction.
“A lot of plays are very topical and have something to say about what’s going on in the world right now. Even though this is a period piece, there aren’t social and political issues that are engaged, for the most part,” said co-director Patricia McKee. “It’s really about relationships between family members, and that never really goes out of style because we’re all so dysfunctional.”
The on-going conflict of the world at war seems a distant but distinct conflict, something the boys must deal with, along with the death of their mother, along with the absence of their father and along with the less-than-ideal living situation they’ve been thrown into with their Grandma Kurnitz, played by Susan Chastain, and their Aunt Bella, played by Chrissy Doba.
Survival, for a woman like Grandma Kurnitz, a woman who walks with a limp due to an injury endured in a riot, a woman who suffered a cruel upbringing, a woman who feels the weight of her two dead children and the abandonment of her others, a woman who refuses to cry and, in fact, makes fun of her children who do, is key. She uses her comic cruelty as lessons to teach, and it seems from them her children and grandchildren begin to learn and evolve.
“Unlike some of Neil Simon’s characters, the characters in this show, they have their weird quirks, but they’re still very human. And because of that they are relatable,” said Michael Rulon, who is co-directing alongside McKee. “(‘Lost in Yonkers’ is) a story of overcoming multiple forms of adversity and surviving in the face of sometimes daunting odds.”
As Jay, Arty, Aunt Bella and Uncle Louie develop and explore different layers of themselves, outwardly expanding into complex individuals, Grandma Kurnitz explores herself internally, and she begins to understand who she is, why she is the way she is, and what it has done to her family.
“As the boys interact with all these different family members, we see layers being revealed, backstories being revealed, and every character grows in some way by the end of the story,” said Rulon. “The play is often referred to as Jay’s coming of age story. But really I think every character, including the 70-year-old grandmother, comes of age. It’s beautiful, but it’s also hilarious.”
What does it mean to be young? What does it mean to grow old? What sort of person do you become as you age? What do you lose? Upon seeing Uncle Louie, the boys see a legend, a man as tough as nails, a man with moxie, but his façade deteriorates after an argument with Jay. They come to understand the depth of his immorality. Because of that, Louie is alone, lost in the gruffness of his being.
Aunt Bella, contrasting Louie’s grime, is seemingly innocent, a child in a woman’s body. She is not ignorant of her condition. She seeks adult desires, wishing to marry a man who dreams of opening a restaurant despite the fact he can’t read. But her outward exploration is hindered by her lack of understanding, her childish perception of what is and what ought. This makes for a character, given her condition, difficult to portray and easy to offend.
“When you take the page to the stage, you can’t always depend on the lines really giving you the full story,” said McKee. “So with [Doba], what happened was she realized, even though these lines might sound angry on the page, Bella doesn’t get angry like an adult gets angry. So we had to find a way for her to get angry that came from a place of innocence.”
It is those nuances in Bella, and in every character, which make Theatrikos’ production of “Lost in Yonkers” a moving story full of conflict and comedy. Under the direction of Rulon and McKee, the story of “Lost in Yonkers” keeps the heart of what made Simon’s script memorable, with the performers adding in subtleties to their characters which make them wholly unique and distinctly human. Together, they work as a cast full of intricacies, arguments, struggles and love. In other words: a family.