Lost in Yonkers is an audience-pleasing comedy about a dysfunctional Jewish family living in the World War II era in New York City. It’s truly a winner.
At the play’s opening, Jay and Arty are visiting their grandmother with their father. It becomes apparent that they have not seen her in a number of years and the reason why is obvious: She is a veritable tyrant. Their father announces that he is in debt and needs to travel to earn quick money.
The boys, much to their grief, must live with their grandmother for 10 months while he is on the road. The plot focuses on the relationships between Grandma Kurnitz, a tough, unemotional German immigrant, and her four children, Eddie, Bella, Gert and Louie, adults who suffer from loveless childhoods.
The goings-on of Grandma Kurnitz’s grown children are viewed through the eyes of the grandchildren Jay and Arty, who offer a fresh and witty perspective on what could be considered to be a rather tragic story.
Eddie is what his mother considers weak – he cries a lot and is dependent on others. Audience members may think it understandable that he cry, as he just lost his wife to cancer, but Grandma Kurnitz has little sympathy.
Bella has mental problems that render her overly “excitable” but still functional, so she lives with her mother and they have a symbiotic relationship. During the course of the play, Bella finds herself wanting the things any grown woman might want – a husband, children and life of her own – but Grandma Kurnitz doesn’t believe her capable of having them.
Gert has only a minor role, but she supposedly ruined her lungs growing up by sleeping with her head under the pillow so that her mother might not hear her saying derogatory things about her in her sleep. Out of all of Grandma Kurnitz’s children, Louie embodies his mother’s values the most: Self-reliance and strength. But he is involved with the mob, and things are starting to go sour for him.
The actors carry their own in this character-driven play, but some particularly stand out on stage. Tony Freeman is a hilarious, believable Jay and plays the role of an older brother well.
Madi Distefano shines as Aunt Bella, the mentally childish but physically womanish aunt. She practically bubbles over with warmth in her happy moments, and she uses the space of the stage well. Although his timing is off at times, Stephen Kent portrays a cute, humorous young Arty.
Without a doubt, the woman who steals the show is Carmen Roman as Grandma Kurnitz. The play is cleverly written so that in the opening scene Arty and Jay are sitting in their grandmother’s parlor while their father speaks with her in the other room.
The audience overhears their dialogue and learns from it that Grandma Kurnitz is a very controlling woman. This image develops even before she ever enters the stage so that by the time she does appear the effect is shocking. The audience actually gasps as this extremely tall, rod-thin woman enters thumping her cane (used for whacking, apparently).
Carmen Roman is a presence. She captures the complexity of Grandma Kurnitz, who is a very hard, unfeeling woman, but who has had to be after growing up in an anti-Semitic Germany and losing two children.
Lost in Yonkers deals with serious subject matter, and is darker than the average Neil Simon play. Despite the seriousness of the content, however, Lost in Yonkers has knee-slapping humor. It is a lively diversion, and audience members can leave the theater with a greater appreciation for their own families.
Emilie Haertsch can be reached at email@example.com.