"Everyone in Yonkers is afraid of Grandma."
Neil Simon's "Lost in Yonkers" won the 1991 Pulitzer and Tony Awards. "Lost" is not quite as light-hearted as his "Brighton Beach Memoirs" trilogy of comedies. In his character study of the Kurnitz family, Simon conveys two powerful messages that are keenly felt in Monomoy Theater's intensely thorough production, directed by Francesca James.
Guest Artist Ellen Fiske becomes the domineering Grandma Kurnitz who witnessed as a child at a political rally in Berlin her father's head being crushed. A horse ran over her foot, years of daily pain, yet she strongly committed to coming to America for a better life. Grandma has supported her family for decades through her small candy store. Fiske's face is mostly stoic, her limping entrances hobbling on a cane captures the audience with each step. She has raised her four children using cruel, harsh punishments, but they never starved. As Act I begins, her two estranged teenage grandsons learn from their father they are being sent to live with Grandma after losing their own mother to cancer.
Grandma's message: "It's not important you hate me, it's important you live." Simon counters the seriousness of a world at war for survival with a Grandma's beautiful, smiling daughter named Bella. Bella's mind wanders at times, mixing up time sequences, moods swing, childish at 35, yet womanly at 35.
Bella speaks with a message of hope eternal: "Families are important when you got trouble in your life." Aunt Bella, played by stunning Erin Cessna, is the driving force of pleasantness whose childish wisdom and antics brings the family together in a finale scene to Bing Crosby's lyrics, "Be careful it's my heart." Bella in her saddle
shoes ignites the action with a few of her own tales to tell. Cessna's portrayal invites the audience into the family dynamics.
Jacob Greene, playing older brother Jay, and Cole Alan Walker as younger Arty, are so convincing as teens with no place to go. Their father Eddie (Matthew Werner) captures paternal responsibilities and worry. He must leave town for a year for a better job selling scrap iron during the war. He did the best for his beloved wife and is now in debt with medical bills, not a new story. Time to work for that loan shark and his family.
Here we go! To bed at 9, up at 5, facing daily Grandma inquisitions. Yakob (as Grandma calls him) is the smart one, Artur is the athlete. The best scenes are on the living room pull-out couch. Great sibling interplay and affection.
Enter Uncle Louie sporting a shoulder harness, handgun, and mysterious black bag. Christopher Bailey becomes a likable henchman hiding out from gangsters. Bailey's smooth operator who says he's "always safe with family" joins the teens on the couch. Jacob's challenging speech with his uncle was "thrilling."
Aunt Gert arrives, too, for Bella's reunion or family intervention dinner evening. Laura Axelrod portrays Gert's trauma-instilled habit of sucking air at the end of each sentence. Axelrod once again touches the audience to smile in laughter.
Braden Hooter's city windows high above the Kurnitz apartment is remarkable. Grace Bunt's period costumes are vintage today. Love the teens short pants and knee socks. Merle Dewitt III's sounds of radio
music swirls throughout the action.
Where did Grandma hide her life savings? What about Bella's movie usher boyfriend and plans for marriage? Who will fund their new restaurant? Who stole the pretzels? And those Monomoy college students really know how to act like teenagers.