by Hugh Hunter
“Lost in Yonkers” (1991), by Neil Simon, now running at Stagecrafters, 8130 Germantown Ave., is an odd sort of coming-of-age story. Directed by Loretta Lucy Miller, the production is a huge effort to honor a script that does not always love you back.
The set (design by Scott Killinger, decor by Yaga Brady) places you in the comfortable living room of grandma Kurnitz in Yonkers. It feels very lived in, and (I’m not sure why) you believe in the reality of its unseen places —the family candy store downstairs and grandma’s bathroom, for example.
Among other things, “Lost” is a period piece. The costumes and a sound design (Bill Bansbach) that is right out of the Great American Song Book help situate you in the urban, Jewish-American immigrant world of 1942.
The ultimate survivor is grandma Kurnitz. Played with a sure hand by Diana Finegold, grandma is an elderly woman with steely glasses and blunt German-edged speech. She thumps about with her cane as though she were a one-woman funeral procession.
Beaten with sticks in Germany as a young woman, she immigrated to America where she married, had six children and opened a candy store. But when two of her children died, grandma shut herself off.
She now gets to beat people with sticks, and in “Lost” a family struggles to survive a double whammy: the devious, subterranean rage of a matriarch and World War II, which reminds you of the seminal forces that helped create her.
Each offspring has a unique problem. Eddie (Eric Rupp) leaves his own sons with their grandma to find work and pay off a loan shark. Louie (Jeffrey Adam Baxt) is a mobster on the lam. Gert (Ilana Brookshier) has a comic-tragic respiratory problem (a throwback to Neil Simon’s salad days on Sid Caesar’s “Show of Shows” in the 1950s).
Lovelorn Bella (Moriah Gornstein) suffers a mental problem that makes her child-like. But she does love Eddie’s teenage sons, Jay (Jonathan Glick) and Arty (Tommy Van Dean), for whom this family is something like the wreckage on the beaches of Normandy.
Although Neil Simon won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony for “Lost,” some characters feel derivative, especially Bella, who’s reminiscent of Laura from “The Glass Menagerie” by Tennessee Williams, and grandma, who brings to mind Miss Havisham from “Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens.
The acting was splendid. I especially admired Moriah Gornstein’s portrayal of Bella. And Simon bequeaths to Jay and Arty his gift for zippy one-liners,but there is no unity of rising action as each character has a separate and unrelated hill to climb.
Does Louie escape the mobsters? Does Bella find love? Does Eddie reunite with his family? Does Grandma have a change of heart? I understand the play as a sociological conception, but dramatically speaking, it also left me feeling (forgive me) a little bit lost.
“Lost in Yonkers” will run through Sept. 30. Reservations at 215-247-9913.
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