I was Lost in Yonkers last night.

At Theater J, and recommend that others leave the GPS at home and follow suit.

As a literary work, I am not sure that Neil Simon’s “Lost in Yonkers” deserved the Pulitzer Prize that it received, but it is clearly a play that is an audience pleaser if well performed and well directed, and the Theater J production is all of that.

The story line: It is 1942, in Yonkers. Embittered German refugee, now living in Yonkers, saw two of her six children die, and the four others each in their own way develop abnormally, presumably in part based on her overly strict, hands-off, dour parenting (her husband died young). Her living children include Eddie, a weak, inoffensive man, somewhat afraid of his shadow, whose own wife has recently died (and who was estranged from his mother while he was married) and who must go on the road selling scrap iron to make enough money to pay off some major debts; Louie, estranged from his mother from time to time, who appears to be a (minor?) thug and bagman, and whose personality is as strong as his brother’s is weak; Gert, who is so nervous that she can’t even speak a full sentence without having to breathe in the last phrase; and Bella, who is an adult, but still a child, with an addled brain, but an extraordinary amount of warmth and humanity, and who lives and works (in the candy store) with her mother. When Eddie announces he is going on the road for ten months, he leaves his 13 and 15 year old sons to live with their grandmother, and it is the goings on, most of which are unpleasant and show tremendous familial dysfunction, that the audience follows until a kind of denouement is reached upon Eddie’s return.

So, with Bella we have a little of Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie”, and with Eddie and his two sons a little of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”. But Simon adds his own touches of course, as he puts these and other story lines together, and turns it into a comedy of great poignancy.

Some of the lines are extremely clever, and each of the characters fascinating (although I wonder if the play would have been a bit stronger if Eddie had only existed off-stage, rather than bookending the script with his going and coming).

“Lost in Yonkers” is often referred to as a coming of age play, about the two boys, Jay and Arty, but in fact the central characters are the mother and Bella. And especially Bella, played at Theater J by Holly Twyford in extraordinary fashion, drawing you in to sympathize with her limitations, and to marvel at her buoyancy, her sense of tragedy and her continual recovery and optimism.

There was a cast talk-back last night after the show. It seemed that the majority of the large audience remained, and the conversation was as interesting as the show itself. Surprising to me was the fact that at least three audience members had German grandmothers/mothers (I forget which), who were precisely the woman played so well by Tana Hicken. Tough, bitter, strict and – at least from the outside – unloving. And that Kevin Bergen, who played Uncle Louie, really had an Uncle Louie (not his name), who, like the character in the play, would show up unannounced and say that he had to stay a few days, or a few weeks, who carried the same black satchel that Louie carried, who had to duck as he walked by the front windows. And then there was the audience member who said that she was a step mother of two children with disabilities and saw characteristics of her children in the precise way that Twyford played Bella. And a discussion about whether this family, clearly Jewish in that the mother escaped anti-Semitic Germany, but not Jewish at all in any of the other elements of the script.

So the play appears to be universal in its appeal and in the ability of the audience to relate to it. And perhaps that it is this universality that led to a two year run on Broadway and a Pulitzer Prize.

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