REVIEW BY ANTHONY CHASE
Slaying Dragons in Yonkers
By ANTHONY CHASE
When Neil Simon died last year, at the age of 91, he left behind an amazing legacy of comedies, dramas, musicals, and screenplays. A common thread in his work is an uncanny talent for quick-witted dialogue, no matter what the genre.
Simon honed his genius for comic observation working in early television comedy, notably on Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows and The Phil Silvers Show. Through his plays, however, he would demonstrate a gift to expose the sadness that often lurks beneath laughter.
“If you can go through life without experiencing pain you probably haven't been born yet,” Simon once observed.
For many, Lost in Yonkers is Simon’s greatest dramatic achievement. Set in Yonkers, 1942, on the surface, this is the story of a man who must leave his teenage sons with his cold and inflexible mother while he goes on the road to pay off the debts incurred while the boys’ mother was dying of cancer. What develops on stage, however, is a series of events leading up to a confrontation between Grandma and her mentally challenged daughter, Bella.
Grandma grew up Jewish in Germany and has seen two of her children die. These experiences and the rise of the Nazis have made her a force for surviving. Bella, on the other hand, despite her intellectual limitations, is a force for living. This is the ultimate odd couple. Bella is David to Grandma’s Goliath; she is St. George to Grandma’s dragon.
Despite the fact that Grandma is typically correct in everything she says, she is nonetheless a monster. With no other option available, this is the woman to whom Eddie must entrust his beloved sons, Jay and Artie, knowing her history of locking children in closets and belittling them for crying.
The production now playing at Desiderio’s Dinner Theatre at Bobby J’s tells the enduring tale with clarity, and delivers on both the jokes and the passion. Under the direction of Lisa Ludwig, we are treated to clear and affecting performances, most notably by Ellen Horst as Grandma Krunitz and Diane DiBernardo as Bella.
Early in the play, Bella exposes Grandma’s Achilles’ Heel – a fear of being alone. Still, Horst’s turn as Grandma betrays greater vulnerability than I have seen before. Typically played with the impenetrability of a rock, Horst’s Grandma is visibly shaken when her grandson proposes his own death, and there is greater ambivalence in the play’s final scene, when Bella begins to assert herself more purposefully.
The strength of Horst and DiBernardo’s performances is generated by the interaction between them. Two wholly opposite characters are, through circumstance, yoked together. The arrival of Bella’s two young cousins, and the happiness she experiences caring for them and confiding in them, forces issues into motion.
After years of directing at high schools, Ludwig is very experienced as molding the performances of young actors. In this case, she is lucky to have secured two highly competent and endearing teens, Ayden Herreid who plays Jay, and Timothy Whipple, who plays his younger brother Arty. Seemingly the protagonists of the story, they are actually catalysts whose role is to comment, or shall I say wisecrack on the action unfolding around them. These young men effectively nail every classic Neil Simon laugh, as they help bring out the humanity in everyone around them.
Eliot Fox charismatically maneuvers his way through the role of Bella and Eddie’s gangster brother, Louie, creating a most unthreatening mobster. Nobody in this play is who he or she appears to be on the surface, however. Louie's cheerful assassinations of Grandma’s attempts to diminish him are both comical and sobering. As he pointedly reminds her, he is the man she made him to be.
Kevin Nagel proficiently embodies Eddie the boy's flustered but devoted father. Kelly Cammarata is touching and likable as dear Aunt Gert, a woman damaged by life and afflicted with a most comical handicap. The boys recall their mother’s observation that everyone in their father’s family has something wrong with them. In spite of all, Aunt Gert has survived.
Lost in Yonkers may be Neal Simon’s least sugar coated depiction of family life. Still, the playwright who based so much of his dramatic output on his own impoverished youth and the strained relationship between his own parents, is still able to find joy in living and to find humanity among unlikely people. That is the beauty of this play.