Beckett Theatre. By Neil Simon. Dir. Jenn Thompson. With ensemble cast. 2hrs 10mins. One intermission.
“The one place in the world you’re safe is with your family.” That’s what a shady uncle tells his two teenage nephews in the darkest play on Neil Simon’s shtick-filled résumé, Lost in Yonkers, but the words aren’t very reassuring. For brothers Jay (Matthew Gumley) and Arty (Russell Posner), the home of Grandma Kurnitz (Cynthia Harris) is no sanctuary in 1942, after their mother’s death sends their father out of town to earn money. These lost boys are thrust into the cold care of his ornery elderly mother—whose version of love is as hard to swallow as her soup—and their sweet but dim 35-year-old aunt, Bella (Finnerty Steeves), still living in the home where her wings were long ago clipped. So much for safety.
Director Jenn Thompson leads her cast through an endearing revival for TACT/The Actors Company Theatre, a group devoted to neglected plays. Punch lines emerge ingenuously from Gumley’s and Posner’s forlorn faces. Equally evocative are Steeves, grounding her flighty character with childlike hopefulness and womanly yearning, and Alec Beard’s powerful Louie, who catalogs his mother’s abuses with distressing casualness. Harris is nearly unwavering in Grandma Kurnitz’s emotional stringency, but compared with the mother in, say, August: Osage County, the character is closer to Carol Brady. Debuting on Broadway in 1991, Lost in Yonkers launched the careers of Mercedes Ruehl and Kevin Spacey and (incredibly) beat Six Degrees of Separation for the Tony and Pulitzer. But time has tempered its pungency. Even bleak, Simon can be too balmy.—Diane Snyder