A few years back, when I hit puberty, my dad put a copy of “Portnoy’s Complaint” in my hands. That’s the Philip Roth book, you’ll remember, that “put the id back in yid.”
Neil Simon took that project seriously, and “Lost in Yonkers” — his 1991 Pulitzer Prize winning play — takes a circumcision-scalpel to the pathologies of a Jewish-American family.
Set in Yonkers, New York, during World War II, the fast-talkin’ domestic play hurtles forward as its agonies accrete, understatedly—until, at the point of oversaturation, they collapse under the dead weight of schmaltz. Director Molly Houlahan ’14 brilliantly cushions the fall, leavening her production with just so much realism as to warrant a genuine emotional response. In other words, yours truly—a notorious schmuck of a skeptic—teared up.
The plot seems, at best, archetypal, at worst a Hollywood stock-reel. In any case, it’s an obscenely overstated litany of sorrows (try saying the following in one breath): two brothers left to their curmudgeonly grandma and absentminded aunt as their hemorrhoidal father goes South to make the money he needs to pay back the shylock he borrowed from to care for his wife who died of cancer: a meek, sickly aunt and wastrel uncle also make appearances. It’s a preachy lot, among whom the word “obligation” folds and refolds like amateur origami. Grandma thinks her grandsons have an obligation to be healthy, even though she’s a hypochondriac. Papa thinks he has an obligation to his family but not to himself. The sons aren’t quite sure to whom they’re obligated. It’s debatable whether the raffish uncle has even heard the word obligation.
But the control room of the play is in Hitler’s bunker; the family’s local anxieties all refer to historical tragedies. Anti-Semitism is Simon’s chief device, rationalizing every statement — at once the cause of and excuse for the play’s sentimentality.
When Arty (played by a compelling, baby-voiced Connor Lounsbury ’14) refuses his grandmother’s soup, she falls back on the usual rhetoric:
“If you were a boy growing up in Germany, you’d be dead by now.”
“But if I ate this soup, I’d be just as dead,” Arty returns.
If on our one side we have a mountain of wit and on the other a mountain of high theatrics, we find that Simon’s script lies in the valley between them. Sara Hendel ’14 plays the grandma, herself a mountain, or monster — “Don’t pay me for being born” is her response to a birthday present — but the actress’s acute sense of stage rhythm allows her to round out the disapproving matriarch, complicating her otherwise overcooked and predictable moral dilemmas.
Christine Shaw ’14, as Bella — the forgetful, ambiguously childlike aunt — employs a suite of tics and mannerisms as expressively controlled as a face fighting back tears; her performance is ravishing.
In fact, what is consistent about the quality of the acting is how the cast nimbly manipulates its oversized parts into psychological creatures and not — as lesser actors would have done with the script — into grotesques.
When the play ends — and it does so in the most predictable way — the boys’ father (played by Gabe Greenspan ’14) kisses his mother, whether she likes it or not. “Thank you for not putting up a fight,” he says. All I could think was: Thank you, production members, for putting up a fight.