Heartbreak tempers laughs in 'Lost in Yonkers'

March 12, 1992|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

"There's nothing like family, boys," is the wisdom imparted to two teen-agers forced to live with their hard-hearted grandmother in Neil Simon's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Lost in Yonkers."

The line is intended as a joke; it's spoken by the boys' gangster uncle as he stashes a gun under his pillow. The uncle is part of a family of colorful losers in this touching, bittersweet drama, which opened at the Mechanic Theatre last night.

Bittersweet? A play by Neil Simon peopled with colorful losers sounds like a comedy, but this is a work that focuses more on character than one-liners. The show isn't without laughs, but in the style of the "Brighton Beach" trilogy, most of its humor arises from adversity -- and there's plenty of that here.

"Lost in Yonkers" is set in 1942, but today's pop psychology lingo would label the Kurnitz family dysfunctional. Besides tough-guy Uncle Louie, the boys have an aunt who's retarded, another who suffers from a nervous speech impediment, and then there's their father -- a gentle, loving man scared to death of his own mother.

But then, as the older grandson claims, "Everyone in Yonkers is afraid of Grandma." This is a challenging reputation for an actress to live up to, but Mercedes McCambridge meets the challenge and goes it one better. She adds a layer of empathy. Grandma is a German Jewish immigrant who has buried a husband and two children. Her method of coping is to seal off her emotions -- a method she's tried to instill in the rest of her family. Emotions are a difficult thing to squelch, however, and McCambridge shows us the heartbreak just under the surface of Grandma's anger.

Although her iron hand has warped all of her children in various ways, Grandma has had no real success suppressing their feelings. This is particularly true of retarded Bella, whose heart is bigger than her intellect. Susan Giosa plays Bella with less goofy exuberance than did Mercedes Ruehl, who originated the role, but the scenes in which Bella stands up to Grandma are still the most moving in the play.

By comparison, the conflict between the boys and Grandma is secondary. However, wisecracking brothers -- played here by Jeff Maynard and Alex Dezen as smart alecks, but good-natured kids -- are virtually a Simon tradition. And in this case there's a touch of irony to their presence as well. Though the boys grow up a little by the end of the play, it's Grandma who grows the most.

Unfortunately, the playwright burdens the brothers -- and their long opening scene -- with too much exposition. Not until the boys stop jabbering about their relatives, and we finally meet them, does the play come alive. And, it should be added, one of the liveliest portrayals is that of Ned Eisenberg as swaggering Uncle Louie, a low-level racketeer and big-time bully.

Art that is truly moving uses the specific to reveal the universal. That, more than anything, is probably the reason "Lost in Yonkers" has garnered so many awards. At the risk of twisting Uncle Louie's words, there's nothing like the family in "Lost in Yonkers," but there's also something almost everyone can relate to.

"Lost in Yonkers" continues at the Mechanic Theatre through April 5; call (410) 625-1400.

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