Neil Simon's timely 'Yonkers'

January 18, 1991|By J. Wynn Rousuck

'Lost in Yonkers'

When: Tuesdays through Sundays at 8 p.m.; matinees Saturdays at 2 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Through Feb. 10.

Where: National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington.

Tickets: $20-$37.50.

Call: (202) 628-6161.

*** Anew Neil Simon play might seem a frivolous luxury as the United States engages in war overseas. But "Lost in Yonkers," which is set against the backdrop of World War II, makes a poignant and surprisingly timely statement about the importance of love, warmth and family unity in times of turmoil.

Actually, throughout most of "Lost in Yonkers" -- currently playing a pre-Broadway run at Washington's National Theatre -- Mr. Simon highlights these values by focusing on their absence in a German-Jewish household in Yonkers, N.Y.

Grandma Kurnitz -- given a chillingly credible performance by Irene Worth -- is an iron-willed matriarch who fled German oppression; she puts so much stock in sheer survival, she doesn't know how to enjoy life. Crippled during a demonstration in her native Germany, she has raised a family of emotional cripples, none of whom could meet her rigid standards.

Into this joyless household come her adolescent grandsons (Jamie Marsh and Danny Gerard), deposited for 10 months while their widowed father (Mark Blum) takes a job as a traveling salesman, hoping to clear debts incurred during his late wife's illness.

The parallels are obvious between these smart-aleck but good-hearted boys and the brothers in Mr. Simon's trilogy that began with "Brighton Beach Memoirs." There are parallels in tone as well. Mr. Simon used to tweak the funny bone; now he also tweaks the heart. Though jokes and physical comedy proliferate, "Lost in Yonkers," adroitly directed by Gene Saks, continues and indeed enlarges the playwright's move toward more serious subject matter.

Much of the comedy has a bittersweet tinge, and it reaches its broad but touching apex in Mercedes Ruehl's exuberant performance as the boys' retarded aunt, a character intellectually stunted but emotionally wise. Additional comic flair is provided by Kevin Spacey as her gangster brother, whose tough-guy self-image hides a little boy's heart.

Everyone wants something from Grandma in "Lost in Yonkers," and the first act devotes far too much time to exposition. With characterizations and performances this strong, the playwright should rely more heavily on showing than telling. Let the characters' actions speak as loudly as their words, and "Lost in Yonkers" will probably find a welcome home on Broadway.

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