As Neil Simon himself admits, his greatest challenge as a playwright stems directly from his unpretentious rapport with mass audiences: "I have to fight off those detractors who attack me for committing the heinous crime of being 'popular.'" Simon is no Ibsen, but then again, he'd probably rather pass a gallstone. He wants to do what he is good at: making people laugh. Lost in Yonkers, directed by David Hastings (who soon leaves Colorado Springs for Australia), encourages not only belly laughs, but also a mood of thoughtful gravity.
Like much of the Jewish humorous tradition, Yonkers is "in spite of" funny -- its humor serves as a release from the trauma of experience. In this case, we have the looming Hitler, World War II on news radio, and not least, Old World Grandma Kunitz (well-acted by Leah Chandler Mills), whose stern demands, ever-present whacking cane, and caustic mustard soup combine to teach her clan about the world's harsh truth. "It's not important that you hate me," she says. "It's important that you live." It is a testament to Mills' performance that even as we see the destructive results of Grandma's tyranny, we are never given the luxury to completely discount her hardened ethic.
Jay (Jesse Bonnell) and Arty (Gabriel Gianes) are brothers who must temporarily grapple with Grandma's lessons while their timid, loving father Eddie (Phil Ginsburg) heads down South to make money selling scrap iron. Further complications and humor arise from the plans of the slow but sweet Aunt Bella (Amy Brooks) and the visitation of the street-smart Uncle Louie (Mark Hennessy).
Much of the credit for this production's success lies in the hands of an excellent and well-directed cast. Importantly, Bonnell and Gianes display
considerable chemistry together, hitting the rhythmic notes of Simon's physical and verbal gags. The young Gianes' body language -- kneeling in front of the fan to keep cool, laying flat on his back and messing up his suit -- works wonderfully. He also has a knack for the endearing understatement; reflecting on Grandma, he deadpans, "She and I have very short conversations."
Bonnell, meanwhile, is pitch-perfect as the humane, frustrated Jay -- you can tell when he's thinking, because he holds his elbow in his hand and gnaws on his thumbnail. If Arty is saved from terminal cuteness by a rascally streak, Jay is saved by his rage at the family's circumstance. You won't find a line like "I hate everyone in the whole world" in Family Circus.
The best performance, though, comes from Hennessy as the hilariously smarmy Uncle Louie. His slinky pace, tough-guy chatter and explosive temper capture a character who reminds the boys of a "James Cagney movie in our own house." Ostensibly the toughest among them, this criminal is sadly the most pliant recipient of Grandma's teachings. Hennessy steals nearly every scene he's in, and his confrontation with the younger boys is the most fully realized conflict in the play.
Other second-half clashes suffer from schmaltz, partly as a result of Simon's tendency to overwrite his characters' speeches -- particularly the central Bella. She can't count scoops of ice cream, but she provides insightful psychological analysis. The brief appearance of breathing-impaired sister Gerty (played by the skillful Jane Fromme) also doesn't connect: too implausible, too grotesque.
Nevertheless, despite some shortcomings, Yonkers is a tremendously entertaining evocation of a bygone time. Its caring gaze into the past is epitomized by Bella's comment about her dead father. "Did you know that you can love someone who died before you were born?"