HARTFORD, Conn. – Despite all his occasional dismay, family mattered to Neil Simon. Putting aside for a moment his masterful comedy classic, “The Odd Couple”, the wildly successful playwright retained his best and most nuanced writing for his three family plays – “Brighton Beach Memoirs”, “Broadway Bound” and the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Lost in Yonkers,” which receives a respectable and generally inviting production at Hartford Stage.
The play takes place over a period of approximately 10 months in 1942. The setting is a two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment (a possibly too spacious affair designed by Lauren Halpern) that sits above the Kandy store from Kurnitz, a candy and ice cream district. shop in Yonkers, NY
This is the domain of Grandma Kurnitz (a suitably granitic Marsha Mason). The apartment and the store are his refuge; its sanctuary; her retirement from a world she considers hostile and unwelcoming.
Now 70, she emigrated from Berlin, Germany 35 years earlier. She is a survivor. She lost her husband and two of their six children. She was the victim of anti-Semitic beatings at school. She has no patience with feelings, expressions of vulnerability and weakness, especially crying.
“I buried a husband and two children and I didn’t cry. I didn’t run out of time,” she tells her grandsons, Jay, 15, and Arty, 13 (played attractively, after an uncertain start, by, respectively, Hayden Bercy and Gabriel Amoroso).
“That’s how I was brought up. Be strong,” says Kurnitz. “You don’t survive the world without being like steel.
“The Year of Aaron’s Death [at age 12] …I closed myself off to..everyone…I lost Rose, then Aaron, and I stopped feeling because I couldn’t take losing anymore.
“Lost in Yonkers” begins as a petrified Eddie (a moving and sincerely engaging Jeff Skowron), brought his sons to his mother in the hopes that she’ll agree to take them while he goes on the road for 10 months as scrap seller. Eddie’s determination to provide the best medical care for his wife in her ultimately unsuccessful battle with cancer cost him everything. He owes $9,000 to a loan shark who wants his money before the end of the year. Eddie took a job at a company that sells scrap metal; a job that will allow him to pay off his debt but that will keep him on the road to the South for about 10 months.
“There’s nothing like family, boys. The only place in the world you’re safe is with your family,” Eddie’s brother Louie (a wonderful Michael Nathanson) told Jay and Arty in a statement that carries more than a hint of… ‘irony.
The thing is, Grandma Kurnitz’s rigidity has taken its toll not only on her, but also on her children, each of whom, to one degree or another, is damaged merchandise. Louie, who has been skilled at stealing things since childhood, is a bagman for a few petty mobsters from whom he is now on the run. One girl, Gert (a persuasive Liba Vaynberg), “can’t speak properly,” Jay says. “She says the first half of a sentence while exhaling and the second half while inhaling”, a condition she has had since childhood as a result of a punitive act by her mother and which she only testifies to during her rare visits to Yonkers. Eddie, much to his mother’s chagrin, is known as the family whiner. Moreover, he stayed away from his mother while he turned his attention to his wife. As a result, Kurnitz incorrectly determined that her late stepdaughter had turned Eddie and the boys against her. And then there’s his other daughter Bella (Andrea Syglowski in an exquisitely rendered performance), who lives with her mother – takes care of her physical needs, runs the store, shops, cooks and spends her “free” time. At the movie theater.
Bella has the mind of a child in an adult body.
“Sometimes my mind wanders,” she tells Jay and Arty at one point. “Kids at school used to say, ‘Hey, Bella. Lost and Found called and said, ‘Come get your brain.’
“Bella was born of scarlet fever and she didn’t speak until she was five years old,” says Grandma Kurnitz. She treats Bella like a child because that’s how doctors characterized her in terms of mental and emotional growth. Bella is not without her own abilities, resources and strengths. Indeed, it’s his quick, impulsive, and empathetic thinking that, unlike his mother’s rejection of Eddie’s idea, makes Jay and Arty come to live in Yonkers after all.
Bella may be a bit “closed for repairs,” as Jay puts it, but she’s actually a fully grown 35-year-old woman with all the needs and wants of a fully grown 35-year-old woman – a family that is his away from his mother; a loving husband, children. She wants to be seen for who she really is; be heard; to be truly loved.
Bella is the beating heart of “Lost in Yonkers” and the unwavering soul, especially given Syglowski’s delicately crafted performance that is both luminous and unassuming. “Lost in Yonkers” is as much about Bella’s growth as it is about reflecting on family ties; how these bonds are tested in the absence of love.
Co-directed by Rachel Alderman and Mason, this production moves with clarity and purpose through the play’s largely self-explanatory first act.
The dramatic fireworks come in the second act, especially a revealing opening scene between Louis and the boys; a funny and touching scene in which Bella gathers the whole family around her for an important announcement about her future; and building inexorably toward a consequent and inevitable, if you will, settling of scores between Bella and her mother.
Except for a slightly melodramatic touch with the lighting leading up to and including Mason’s first entrance in the first act, Alderman and Mason applied a delicate touch to their directing. They capture the nuances and rhythm of the play and manage to forge within their cast an authentic sense of family.
“The only thing that keeps me going is knowing that you are with my family. Thank goodness you are in good hands,” Eddie wrote to his sons in one of his letters from the road.
Simon’s work is called “Lost in Yonkers”. Ultimately, this piece is about what was found.