Grandma Kurnitz is not a lot of laughs. "Anger has been in me a long time," she declares in her thick, threatening German accent. When Grandma was just twelve years old, her foot was crushed by a falling horse at a political rally in Berlin. That mishap would have occurred in the 1880s, because Neil Simon's Lost in Yonkers, which is being staged by New Jewish Theatre, begins in 1942. But Grandma was a game girl. Despite a lifetime of constant pain, she married, bore six children and relocated her family to Yonkers, New York. Now her husband and two children are dead. Weighted down by the added heaviness of a permanent scowl, Grandma limps around her musty apartment above Kurnitz's Kandy Store, terrifying everyone in her path. This tyrannical old harridan is the most uncompromising character Simon ever created.
The Widow Kurnitz (Nancy Lewis) presides over an odd brood of misfits. Her son Louie (the plucky Michael Scott Rash) is a petty gangster. A second son, Eddie (Gary Glasgow), is deeply in debt to a loan shark. Daughter Gert (Sigrid Sutter) is so terrified of her mother that she can barely breathe around her. A second daughter, 35-year-old Bella (Kelley Weber), is emotionally arrested with a mind that meanders between fantasy and reality. When Eddie must leave town in order to raise money to pay off his debt, he parks his kids with Grandma and Bella. Much of Lost in Yonkers is seen through the wide eyes of thirteen-year-old Arty (Leo B. Ramsey), who has inherited his father's fear genes, and fifteen-year-old Jay (Robert Love), who cannot resist lobbing jokes. What would a Neil Simon play be without wisecracks?
For this outing it might have been better, because the most involving sequences in Lost in Yonkers are the scenes with the least humor. After three decades as Broadway's king of comedy, Simon strives in this script for something a little more stringent than what he offered in some of his earlier all-out comedies. But he can't resist slipping in one more zinger, and then another. Which is unusual, because Simon was known for his discipline in cutting laughs. Here he is not so disciplined. Nevertheless, the world has decided that Lost in Yonkers is Simon's best play; its many awards include the Tony and the 1991 Pulitzer Prize. There's not much to be gained by arguing with the world, but a minority opinion would suggest that this is no more Simon's best play than Rooster Cogburn in True Grit is John Wayne's best performance. Sometimes, as venerable careers begin to wind down, they get excessively rewarded.
Lost in Yonkers' Achilles heel is Bella. Simon has proclaimed her the play's heroine; in this piece she is the character with whom he most identifies. Yet she feels contrived. Her proclivity for always saying the unexpected becomes a distraction. (Here comes Bella; wait for the joke and then the play can proceed.)
But under the direction of Doug Finlayson, New Jewish has mounted a well-acted production, starting with Nancy Lewis, who is to the manner born as Grandma (though I was surprised by the haste with which she made her first, much-anticipated entrance). Finlayson wisely has paid special care to the minor roles. Sigrid Sutter resists the opportunity to turn the asthmatic Gert into comic relief. Because Sutter does not resort to the obvious, Gert brings a welcome sense of believability to the Kurnitz home. As Eddie, the harried father, Gary Glasgow is the production's secret weapon. From the moment he enters the apartment living room, frantically imploring his sons, "Do you want Grandma to see you with creased pants?" Glasgow's Eddie is a mass of fears. Thanks to Glasgow, from the earliest minutes we know we're attending a fleshed-out play, not solely a comedy. You will leave the theater having been thoroughly entertained; at the same time, you might find yourself wishing the playwright had trusted his abilities — and some of his characters — just a bit more.