Most theater-goers, movie and TV fans know Neil Simon for his fast-paced comedies, filled with sharp one-liners and frequently bumbling characters.
“Lost in Yonkers,” the Simon play which opened Friday evening in South Bend Civic Theatre’s Warner Theatre is not one of these.
Not that there is a lack of typical Simon humor, but it is blended with deeply touching character studies and frequently painful reality. As one character in another playwright’s comedy declared “Laughter through tears is my favorite kind.”
There is a great deal of that in “Yonkers” where teenage brothers Arty (Noah Hickey) and Jay (Noah Johnson) Kurnitz are brought by recently widowed father Eddie (Casey St.Aubin) to stay with their Grandma Kurnitz (Mary Ann Moran) while he takes a traveling job to pay off loan shark debts incurred during his wife’s illness.
Grandma Kurnitz is a grim, strict survivor of Nazi Germany and the unrelenting struggle to survive in a new country with a large family. Sympathy, empathy, understanding and forgiveness are not in her vocabulary.
To say the boys are unhappy is putting it mildly.
The only bright spot in the Yonkers household is their Aunt Bella (Crystal Ryan), a mentally challenged 35-year-old given to emotional outbursts. She is their ally in spite of sharing a fear of Grandma Kurnitz.
Into the mix creeps (literally) another relative, Uncle Louie (Tucker Curtis), a bag man hiding himself and his little black bag from the mob. He stirs the boys’ imaginations of life on the wild side and tells them how he survived his mother’s severe punishments and is the only one of his siblings who is not afraid of her.
This includes the Aunt Gert (April Sellers) whose vocal anomaly is the remnant of her traumatic childhood.
Put them all together and it is difficult to say which is the most lost. Only Jay and Arty leave Yonkers with a real chance of survival.
Under the direction of Scot Shepley, the actors bring each of the strikingly individual characters believeably to life. The boys are typical brothers, baiting each other yet solidly together if one is the object of adult scrutiny. As the older, Johnson takes the lead in their daily life adventures, and his frustration is increasingly obvious. Hickey is the sometimes unwilling follower. His soup showdown with Grandma is familiarly hilarious.
Ryan’s Bella is both the victim and the heroine of this Yonkers household. A positive persona in spite of her handicap, she deals with her limitations and accepts the disintegration of her dream, emerging as a surprising survivor.
Curtis brings a blast of energy to the suffocating atmosphere, albeit the energy is primarily bravado. He is the sibling who left in order to live and who, finally, warns his nephews of the danger in repeating his choices.
St. Aubin gathers strength as his character deals with illness and work on the road, returning at last to find a way out for himself and his sons.
As Grandma Kurnitz, Moran is unyielding, ruling her fractured household with an iron grip which today would definitely be described as abusive. It is not important that her grandsons like her, she declares. It is only important that they live. Alone at last, whether or not she will remain so is left to the individual .
Set, costumes and props all work well to recreate a typical middleclass apartment in the 1940s. Love the sofa antimacasars! Wigs are not as successful, however, especially Moran’s iron braid.
It is said that all of Simon’s plays are at least in some degree related to his own life. In 1991, “Lost in Yonkers” earned him the last of his three Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize for drama.
Obviously Grandma was right.
“LOST IN YONKERS” plays through Jan. 25 in the SBCT Warner Theatre. For performance dates, times and reservations, call 234-1112 or visit www.sbct.org