Elements of Neil Simon’s life often appear in his plays. While his 1991 drama Lost in Yonkers is not as closely autobiographical as the earlier written Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound trilogy, his family is clearly a good part of the source material for this memory play.
Yonkers, which won the Pulitzer, several Tony awards and a Drama Desk award, ran for 780 performances on Broadway and became a successful movie in 1993, has been revived on a number of stages across North America recently. Once declared Simon’s best play, current responses have not been universally positive.
Perhaps this is in part because it is set in the early 1940s and fewer members of today’s audiences have as clear an understanding of the era and the hardships it presented for so many. The play itself, in combining serious issues of family dysfunctionality, mental health and poverty with comedy and Simon’s signature one-liners, is harder to categorize.
Having said that, it must also be said that the Ottawa Little Theatre production, as directed by Chantale Plante, is well balanced between the two genres, thoughtful, careful not to make comic moments too broad and genuinely moving.
The most powerful moment in the show comes when Grandma Kurnitz, the much-feared matriarch of the family, breaks down with a near silent howl of grief at the thought of being left alone. She had fought for respect and taught the importance of survival all her life and finally realizes that neither is as important as being loved. It is a tribute to a brilliant performance and beautifully rounded characterization by Charlotte Stewart that Grandma’s misery inspires such pity. It is also extremely satisfying to see her move forward, softening enough to accept affection — tentatively given and received.
Jay (Thomas Nyhuus) and Arty (Ven Djukic) offer solid performances as the two grandsons she has reluctantly sheltered for 10 months, while their recently widowed father is away working to pay off his debts. (The younger brother in the Simon memory plays is the playwright’s alter ego. His first wife, like the boys’ mother in this play, had cancer and died very young.)
Laurie Batstone is a good counterpoint to Stewart as the childlike and mentally unstable Bella and John Collins as gangster son, Louie, is amusing and almost convinces himself that he is not afraid of his mother.
It is well worth finding time to be Lost in Yonkers, which continues at Ottawa Little Theatre to January 22.
Ottawa, Iris Winston