If you were to describe Neil Simon’s “Lost in Yonkers” to someone who had never seen it, the reaction might be something along these lines: “Sounds corny” or “Sounds depressing” or “But it’s still Neil Simon, right?”
The truth is that Simon’s superbly crafted dramedy about a dysfunctional family during World War II is an emotionally powerful piece that sets up problems for its characters without easy solutions. The Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre production, which opens its season, gets all the juice it can from the material with a gifted cast under Karen Paisley’s direction. Performances are good across the board; some are outstanding.
Simon’s setup is simple: Eddie, a widower, has gone deep into debt with a loan shark and is no longer able to take care of his young sons, Arty and Jay. His only option is to convince his mother, the nail-spitting Grandma Kurnitz, to take in the boys for nine months while he travels the American South buying scrap iron for the war effort.
Over the course of the play, the kids come to understand their dictatorial grandmother while working in her downstairs candy store. And they get to know their Aunt Bella, a loving but developmentally challenged character, and Uncle Louie, a larger-than-life bag man for the mob.
Simon, ever the king of one-liners, seasons the story with plenty of laughs, most of them earned. But his abilities as a dramatist make this play special. He grounds his characters and their back-stories in reality, and offers few pat resolutions. By so doing, he creates a feast for the actors.
Dominating this production are Marilyn Lynch as Grandma Kurnitz and Bonnie Griffin as Bella. Grandma is more than a verbally abusive taskmaster who sees emotional displays as signs of weakness. She is a product of her harsh upbringing in Germany, and Lynch inhabits the role seamlessly.
Griffin has the more difficult role as Bella, who isn’t stupid even though her brain frequently short circuits. And she has an enormous heart. Griffin’s control and her command of nuance are amazing to watch. Her working-class New York accent is flawless.
Also weighing in with an indelible, picturesque performance is Scott Cox as Uncle Louie. Cox has fun with Louie, who impresses the kids with his movie-gangster talk, his shoulder holster and his mysterious black bag. Cox has to maintain a fine balance between character and caricature, and he finds plenty of subtlety in this blowhard character.
The kids, Whitaker Hoar as Arty and Zack Hoar as Jay, are impressively poised and hold their own quite nicely with the experienced adults on stage. The Hoars really are brothers and evidently use that relationship as a foundation for the fictional brothers of the play. Their banter can be a show unto itself. At times the kids rush their lines, but for the most part these are nicely executed performances.
Chris Gleeson handles the role of Eddie effectively. He’s only onstage twice, but we often hear him in voiceover as the kids read the letters he sends from the road. Scoring with a delightful comic performance is Brie Henderson as Aunt Gertie, whose childhood traumas left her with a habit of sometimes inhaling as she speaks. Henderson nails the humor but she, like the other actors, finds an underlying reality that makes these characters plausible and sympathetic.
Paisley’s basic set serves the play’s needs. Atif Rome has contributed some good-looking costumes. Lacey Pacheco’s lighting plays a crucial role and John Story’s sound design gives the show urban texture.