And now, Neil Simon – seriously. The playwright who gave us plenty of laughs in such New York-based shows as “Barefoot in the Park” will always be remembered as a writer of comedies. But a Neil Simon play that will resonate in 50 years – very different from the comedies, which already begin to taste like theatrical preserves – is “Lost in Yonkers.”
The 1991 play, set in 1942 in the city north of the Big Apple, is Simon’s look at survival, and there’s very little funny about it. It’s engaging and compelling and – like his comedies – without a hint of irony. No modern playwright I can think of is more straightforward in his plotting and in drawing characters and clearly motivating them. What you see and hear of them is what you get, no assessments needed.
That’s true of Bristol Riverside’s precise production, too – the only fault in the staging by Bristol’s artistic director, Keith Baker, is the show’s failure to employ a dialect coach. And because everything else about the production shines, the too-pronounced Brooklyn accents from the pair of boys in the show and the uncertain accent of their German-raised grandmom never quite blend with the high bar the production reaches in other ways, including an evocative 40s-style home interior by Jason Simms and precise costumes from the period, by Linda B. Stockton.
The other night at Bristol marked my first experience with “Lost In Yonkers,” even though I’ve seen several other Simon plays two and three times. It’s unmistakably Neil Simon’s work in many ways: the repartee, the clear characters, the steady cadence of the writing. But it has an underlying sadness – two teenage boys from Brooklyn (David Nate Goldman and Kyle Klein II, both impressive in the roles) are taken by their dad to live with their grandmother in Yonkers because their mother has died after fighting cancer. They hardly know Granny because their mom and their dad (portrayed playwright Bruce Graham, a fine actor, too) kept them out of Yonkers, pretty much, until this time. Grandma, you see, is an icy terror.
At this point, we could get a Neil Simon comedy: rascally boys are dropped into grandmom’s lap, get into mischief, get out of it somehow, everyone’s changed for the better. What Simon does, instead, is a total road-twist: He makes “Lost in Yonkers” a play mainly about the relationship between Grandma (the excellent Joy Franz, who makes the character as walloping as a hammer and rigid as a nail) and her grown daughter, a mildly retarded woman. Granny protects the daughter by keeping her in check at home, and exploits her by making her mind their candy shop and attend to the old woman’s every need.
The daughter is played by Eleanor Handley, who exhibits a remarkable fullness of spirit – she’s every bit as addled in her stresses as she is childlike in her joys. (Watch Handley’s face and body language in a second-half scene, when her character’s about to burst with a big announcement but can’t begin until everyone sits in just the places she’d imagined.)
It turns out that the old lady in “Lost In Yonkers” has kept the family in shape — they include a shady son (Danny Vaccaro, nicely threatening) and a daughter with a breathing problem (Karen Peakes) – by being a survivalist leader long before Outward Bound was a phrase. She’d been brutalized as a young Jewish girl in Germany, which has left her limping., She expects the worse from life, fights the worst off daily, and never quite gets to enjoy being alive. Peck her on the cheek as a familial token – she’d rather smack you with her crutch. Cry in front of her? She’ll order you into the closet for showing weakness. She is the archetypical survivor and if you’re kin, she’ll teach you to be, too.
The boys, of course, will learn a lot from this woman who barely agrees to have them around. That’s clear from the first scene, when they cower even before she shows her face, then instantly adapt to her sternness by their own wiles. Will they ever be anything more than distant to her? Blood, they say, runs thicker than water. In “Lost in Yonkers,” it’s more a solid than anything representing a liquid.
“Lost in Yonkers” runs through Nov. 30 at Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe St., Bristol. 215-785-0100 or www.brtstage.org.