Looking at ’40s ‘Yonkers’ through a 21st-century lens
Costa Mesa Playhouse’s artistic director, Michael Serna, and director Wendy Ruth agree that the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1991 dramedy is arguably Neil Simon’s greatest work.
By Joel Beers
By 1990, Neil Simon’s name was etched upon whatever monument honors successful American writers. He’d long since conquered Broadway (at one point in the mid-1960s he had four plays running simultaneously). His film and TV work had been seen by millions. He’d received some 20 Academy, Tony and Emmy nominations. He’d made gobs of money, and plays like “Barefoot in the Park,” “The Odd Couple,” and his Brighton Beach trilogy had helped underwrite many a community theater.
But it wasn’t until 1991 that a Simon play was finally deemed literary “enough” by the crowd that plays an oversized role in determining that distinction, when his play “Lost in Yonkers” earned him the Pulitzer Prize for drama.
So it was only natural that “Yonkers” was the play Costa Mesa Playhouse Artistic Director Michael Serna gravitated toward after Simon’s August 2018 death.
“I started thinking after he passed about how people would look back at him,” said Serna. “Would he be seen as this commercial powerhouse, or was there something else there?”
And for Serna, “Lost in Yonkers” is the one show among the many Simon wrote that emphatically shows he was more than a prolific, solid craftsman of funny plays with zingy one-liners.
Yonkers came late in Simon’s career after he’d dialed back on the situational comedies of New Yorkers dealing with the anxieties of big city life. The plays in his Brighton Beach trilogy were, according to the New York Times, “darker-hued, semi-autobiographical…comedy-dramas [that] explored the tangle of love, anger, and desperation that bound together – and drove together – and drove apart – a Jewish working-class family.”
Simon followed that trilogy with “Yonkers,” another semi-autobiographical play, but one Serna feels was the culminating work of Simon’s career.
“It’s still got so much of his comedy and signature humor, but it’s more sophisticated and deeper,” Serna said. “It’s not a coming-of-age story like the ‘Brighton Beach’ series, but deeper – more like a memory piece in a kind of Tennessee Williams way. It feels different and more unique than anything else he wrote.”
“Lost in Yonkers” is set in 1942 in an apartment above a candy store owned by domineering Grandma Kurnitz. She sacrificed immensely to get her family out of Old World Germany but hasn’t integrated seamlessly into the New World. She values toughness and self-reliance above all else, and that has deeply affected her four grown children: Bella, a sweet-natured soul but who is, in 1940s parlance, “slow”; Gertrude, plagued by a breathing disorder that apparently only manifests when she’s around her mother; Louie, who has learned toughness from his mother but is also a low-level mobster; and Eddie, who committed the unpardonable sin in his mother’s eyes: choosing his wife over her.
But Eddie’s wife has recently died, and he has arrived at his mother’s home with his two sons, 15-and-a-half-year-old Jay, and 13-year-old Arty. He entreats his mother to take them in long enough so he can work the World War II scrap iron circuit and make enough money to pay off the loan shark who fronted the funds to help pay for his wife’s hospital bills. Set in her ways, Grandma Kurnitz wants nothing to do with two loud, messy teenagers, and the boys are even more opposed to the idea.
But after the usually passive Bella intercedes, the boys have a temporary home and must learn to navigate the eccentric personalities of their family members in hopes that their father will eventually return to save them.
While the introduction of the boys into the home is the plays’ impetus, and much of the humor comes from their observations and reactions to their interesting family, the most fascinating dynamic is between their aunt Bella and their grandmother. That is one key reason why Serna asked a longtime friend, and co-worker, Wendy Ruth, to lend her directing talents.
“The key figures of Bella and Grandma Kurnitz are really strong, and when Michael approached me he said he really wanted to have a woman direct it,” she said. “I told him that Neil Simon is absolutely in my wheelhouse, and this play in particular, where the humor comes from making fun of things even when they’re terrible, fits right in with my family.”
This is Ruth's first play at Costa Mesa Playhouse, but she has worked closely with the Gallery Theatre in Anaheim as well as several Los Angeles companies. But before she began working for Disney 24 years ago, she accumulated a great deal of professional theater experience. After receiving her undergraduate degree in theater from UIC Riverside, she worked as a stage manager in the last years of the Los Angeles Theatre Center and also worked at the Intiman Theatre under Warner Shook, including the premiere productions of both “Angels in America” plays.
While “Lost in Yonkers,” doesn’t rise to that epic scale, one aspect, by 2020 standards, is deadly serious: Grandma Kurnitz is a physically and mentally abusive mother who traumatized her children.
And considering two of the younger members in the cast are in only their second play, Ruth said there has been plenty of discussion about looking at a play set in the 1940s through a 21st-century lens.
“We’re dealing with a mother who was abusive and we are doing a play where we’re going to be laughing at that, so I’ve tried to find a place where the cast was comfortable with that and, even more important, to try to understand why Grandma was like that and why she did what she did,” Ruth said.
For Ruth, this a play about survival, how each of the characters learned to respond to Grandma, and, over the course of the play, who is most successful in terms of surviving, and which characters are living, and which are truly alive.
The depth of character exploration, even if viewed through a humorous perspective, is why Ruth feels “Lost in Yonkers” is one of Simon’s best plays.
“This one is more nuanced than many of his autobiographical plays,” she said. “There is much more character exploration in this, and people who go through an arc. And the theme of family and loss and character trying to find themselves is something that so many of us can relate to.”
Ruth hopes that audience members will experience “some great laughs” as every character has a comic element, but she also hopes that they will gain “some appreciation about their own family [dynamic] and ask themselves if they are living the lives they truly want to live, or if they’re just getting by – and if they aren’t [to consider], whether they can do what one character seems to do, which is making that very difficult choice to change.”
Joel Beers is a freelance journalist and journalism instructor at Cal State Dominguez Hills. He has also written and adapted 10 full-length plays produced in Los Angeles and Orange counties.
‘Lost in Yonkers’ by Neil Simon
Costa Mesa Playhouse, 661 Hamilton St., Costa Mesa
Jan. 24-Feb. 16. Fri. & Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun. 2 p.m.
(949) 650-5269, www.costamesaplayhouse.com