Despite the big-blue-spaceship whimsy of Jean Nouvel’s new Guthrie, there’s still that serious good-for-you-ness that looms large over a night at the new G. It’s still the theatre. In fact, the avant-garde architecture probably adds to the heaviness. You’re supposed to be impressed. To pay attention. You’re supposed to chortle during the appropriate moments. You’re a bad person if you fall asleep during the second act. So last Friday, when I went to see Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers, I prepared myself for some serious theater. This wasn’t $15 at the local multiplex. I wouldn’t be having fun. I would be paying attention to themes and forecasting plot points by reading into symbolism, and at all times appreciating the actors’ performances. I would be wearing a jacket.
It seemed like it was going to be a lot of work.
To top it off, this was supposedly Simon’s serious play. This wasn’t Felix and Oscar in The Odd Couple. Or Christina Applegate in Sweet Charity. This wasn’t from his big Broadway oeuvre. Lost in Yonkers won Simon his Pulitzer, not in the swingin’ 1960s, but in 1991. This was a WWII play—set in the era of Simon’s childhood, but written in the throes of the first Gulf War. For Simon, Lost in Yonkers was like Spielberg leaving Jaws and Indiana Jones behind to make Schindler’s List.
The play in set in Yonkers in 1942. The set is an old woman’s apartment, with perfect details that the Guthrie consistently nails: lace doilies on the puke-green davenport arms, an overwrought grandfather clock in the corner. (Grandma’s house never changes, does it? It reminded me of my own grandmother’s TV room, in Brooklyn Center, forty years later.) And from the moment twelve-year-old Artie and fourteen-year-old Jay open their mouths and warp the zippy one-liners with their exaggerated, elongated New Yawk vowels, it’s clear that Simon is still out to entertain, to make us laugh. When crazy Bella, Artie’s thirtysomething aunt who’s never left her mother’s house, asks him if mother heard her come up the stairs, Artie asks, “How, isn’t she partially deaf?” Without a beat, Bella answers, “Sure, but the other part hears perfectly.”
And on it goes. Except that there is something dark going on underneath all those zippy one-liners. In the first scene, Artie and Jay are being abandoned by their father, who recently lost his wife—their mother—to cancer. Dad, bankrupted by hospital bills, desperately takes a salesman’s job, selling scrap metal in the southern market in order to pay his debt to a loan shark. He’s decided to leave the boys to his crazy, permanently-childlike sister Bella, and to his stern, emotionally unavailable, German-Jewish mother in Yonkers.
That German-Jewish mother, Grandma Kurnitz, (played with the perfect amount of cold, forbidding heft by Irish actress Rosaleen Linehan) is the focal point of the play. Before she even makes her first appearance, her presence is felt—the terror of the controlling, emasculating mother slowly crawls up your forearms as you hear Kurnitz’s cane coming down the hall…STOMP…STOMP…STOMP. She’s the Jewish Godzilla.
Lost In Yonkers is a play about the tension between the first Me Generation and their parents, in what would go on to become the century of the self. Grandma Kurnitz’s children, Eddie, Bella, Louie, and Gert, are focused on the self--their own plans and get-ahead schemes, and how to circumvent the people and responsibilities that distract or compromise those plans. Equipped with the language of psychoanalysis, they constantly invoke Freud’s “I” when talking to their mother, who listens, bewildered and paralyzed—her immigrant lessons of toughness, self-reliance, resourcefulness and honor lost on these full-grown adolescents. In whiny, mewling speeches (but also funny, whiny speeches), they all take turns accusing their mother of having an inability to show love or affection, using this amateur psychoanalysis to point out that it’s all a result of her own childhood trauma (at the hands of the Nazis), which has begotten their childhood trauma, and which is now threatening Artie and Jay’s childhood. Simon hardly has to invoke his trademark vaudeville pitter-patter to satirize this sibling society—it twinges us because it still goes on in our own families.
The happy ending is a cop-out, but I expected that (it’s Neil Simon, after all, and while later in his career he may have realized that dark endings to dark plays win Pulitzers, I’m sure he always knew dark endings don’t sell tickets). And I expected the great acting and the great scene work too (it is the Guthrie). But I didn’t expect that we would be dealing with the heavy mother-daughter, mother-son intergenerational turmoil. (Yonkers makes some of the other archetypal Simon characters seem more warped and damaged in retrospect—Oscar Madison with his rumpled clothes and his dysfunctional disorganization. Felix Ungar and his obsessive-compulsive, control freak cleanliness. Get thee to a pharmacist!) The darker material is still handled with Simon’s light, just-funny-enough touch, allowing us to laugh our way through things that might be too painful otherwise, yet leaving just enough pain to linger on. Enough to remind us that last night, we went to the theatre.