I am not an enormous fan of Neil Simon, and this opinion is largely based on the recent, unsuccessful revivals he has had on Broadway and off. However, after watching the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Lost in Yonkers,” in a beautifully rendered production presented by TACT (The Actors Company Theatre) on Theater Row 42nd Street, I am well on the way to changing my mind.
Simon’s plays require intimacy, and that is exactly what director Jenn Thompson has created: she chose a small theater, a one-set show, no flash, no glitter, and total commitment to characterization and the relationships between members of the Kurnitz family.
In 1942, two young teens, Arty (Russell Posner) and Jay (Matthew Gumley) are dropped at their grandmother’s house in Yonkers, New York, due to the financial problems of their father, Eddie (Dominic Comperatore). Under protest, she takes them in while Eddie travels around the country, earning money to pay off debt incurred due to his late wife’s cancer treatment.
Grandma Kurnitz (Cynthia Harris) lives with her daughter Bella (Finnerty Steeves) a thirty-five year old child-woman, whose heart is in the right place, longs for love and is also described as having a “head full of marbles.” Bella helps run the family grocery store downstairs, and though her mother threatens her with “the home” if she does not behave, she is integral to the household. While the boys acclimate to their new and sometimes severe household, their shady Uncle Louie (Alec Beard) stops by, ostensibly for a visit but really to lie low from men who want to do him bodily harm. He describes himself as a “money manager,” but the boys and everyone else know better.
The anchor to “Lost in Yonkers” is the formidable, frightening, cane-wielding Grandma Kurnitz, and Cynthia Harris is magnificent: she is a woman who has suffered, yet is without a shred of self-pity. She seems to make those around her suffer as well, whether intentionally or not. Arty describes kissing his grandma like “kissing a wrinkled ice cube.”
The rest of the cast is equally stellar: Finnerty Steeves walks a fine line between attractive woman and confused child; her longing to be loved is apparent in a heartbreaking scene with her mother, where she explains exactly where this desire comes from, and whom is to blame. Russell Posner’s funny, awkward Arty is a perfect foil to the bluntness of Matthew Gumley’s Jay, and sometimes it seems all the best lines come out of their mouths. Alec Beard as Louie looks like he stepped out of a James Cagney film, albeit sharper and in better shape, and his manner is spot-on as an unapologetic thief who carries around a big, black bag of other people’s money. In smaller roles, both Dominic Compertore as Eddie and Stephanie Cozart as Gert are very fine.
So, I am a late convert, but this Neil Simon works for me: touching, funny and beautifully acted, “Lost in Yonkers” by TACT is a triumph.