We think of him primarily as a writer of comedies, but Neil Simon’s greatest plays are arguably his dramas, especially his autobiographical “Eugene” trilogy and his Pulitzer Prize-winning hit, “Lost in Yonkers,” about a stony-faced German Jewish grandmother who unwillingly takes charge of her two young grandsons during the Second World War. A revival of “Lost in Yonkers” opens Off Broadway in March at TACT/ The Actors Company Theatre, located on Theatre Row in Midtown.
In “Lost in Yonkers,” the play involves a traveling salesman named Eddie who leaves his sons, Jay (Matthew Gumley) and Artie (Russell Posner), with their grandmother (Cynthia Harris, from “Mad About You”) so that he can look for work in a metal scrapyard in the South. Also living in the household are the boys’ mobster uncle, Louie (Alec Beard), and their emotionally disturbed aunt, Bella (Finnerty Steeves). The play’s climax is a confrontation between Bella and her mother that is sparked by Bella’s plea for financial help; she needs money to leave her mother’s house and marry an usher whom she has met at a local movie theater.
“Lost in Yonkers” had its premiere on Broadway in 1991, with Irene Worth as Grandma Kurnitz, Mercedes Ruehl as Bella, and Kevin Spacey as Louie; they all won Tony Awards for their performances. The new Off-Broadway production marks the first New York-area revival of the play, other than a touring production by the Montana Rep that came to the outer boroughs in 2007, and a Paper Mill Playhouse production in Northern New Jersey in 2010. (A 1993 film starred Worth and Ruehl, with Richard Dreyfuss playing Louie.)
In an interview with The Jewish Week, the director, Jenn Thompson, called the play “absolutely heart-wrenching, but it never stops being funny. It goes full tilt boogie the entire ride; just when you think you can’t take any more, Simon pulls the rug out from under you. I can’t think of another play that does that. It’s Simon’s big literary contribution.”
When a revival of “Brighton Beach Memoirs” closed after a week on Broadway in 2009, and a companion production of “Broadway Bound” was canceled, Simon’s longtime producer Manny Azenberg told The Jewish Week that Simon’s plays would probably henceforth be done Off Broadway rather than on. With this “Lost in Yonkers” revival, his prediction rings true, so far.
“Not only do I think that Simon’s plays will now be done Off Broadway, regionally and institutionally,” Azenberg noted last week in a follow-up interview, “but plays in general will be done Off Broadway because of Broadway’s economics,” which make it very difficult to turn a profit on a straight play. But works like “Lost in Yonkers” and “Brighton Beach Memoirs” will, he said, “still show up, be successful and continue to resonate.”
“Lost in Yonkers” begins previews on March 13 for a March 22 opening at the Beckett Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St. For tickets, $20-$56.25, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com.