Title: Lost in Yonkers
Author: Neil Simon
Publisher: Samuel French, Inc.
Release Date: June 2010 (first published 1990)
Length: 114 pages
Genre: aDram, Humor
Neil Simon’s inimitable play about the trials and tribulations that test family ties – winner of the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for Drama
What happens to children in the absence of love? That is the question that lies at the heart of this funny and heartrending play by one of America’s most acclaimed and beloved playwrights. Debuting at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in 1990, Lost in Yonkers went on to win four Tony Awards, including Best Play, as well as the Pulitzer Prize, and tells the moving drama about the cruelties and painful memories that scar a family.
It is New York, 1942. After the death of their mother, two young brothers are sent to stay with their formidable grandmother for the longest ten months of their lives. Grandmother Kurnitz is a one-woman German front—a refugee and a widow who has steeled her heart against the world. Her coldness and intolerance have crippled her own children: the boys’ father has no self-esteem . . . their Aunt Gert has an embarrassing speech impediment . . . their Uncle Louie is a small-time gangster . . . and their Aunt Bella has the mentality of a child. But it is Bella’s hunger for affection and her refusal to be denied love that saves the boys—and that leads to an unforgettable, wrenching confrontation with her mother. Filled with laughter, tears, and insight, Lost in Yonkers is yet another heartwarming testament to Neil Simon’s talent.
Jay and Arty come to live with Grandma and Aunt Bella after their mother dies. Their father, Eddie, cannot serve in the military, so he is a traveling salesman throughout the south. He sells metals – steel, mostly – to benefit the military and contribute to the war. They learn interesting things about their Aunt Bella and Uncle Louie, both who have their own struggles, while trying to please their hard-nosed German grandmother.
Jay – called Yakob by Grandma
Arty – called Artur by Grandma
Eddie – Jay and Arty’s father, he is a traveling salesman selling metals for the military, known to be sickly
Grandma – a hard, cold German woman, escaped Berlin, owns a candy store
Aunt Bella – Jay and Arty’s aunt, she lives with Grandma and works in the candy store, has the mindset of a child
Uncle Louie – Jay and Arty’s uncle, he is rarely around and seems to take part in nefarious activities
Aunt Gert – Jay and Arty’s aunt, she has a speech impediment
The Highs and Lows
- Jay and Arty. The two are wide-eyed coming to live with Grandma. They know virtually nothing about their relatives, since they’ve never really visited. They are a quiet, cute duo who are piecing together and learning the history of Grandma, Bella, Louie and Gert.
- Grandma. She is a hard, cold, steeled woman who does not believe in showing any emotion. A display that could be interpreted as weakness disgusts her. She suffered in her escape from Berlin, and although she has buried her husband and even some of her own children at young ages, she does not cry. In this, she has pushed the rest of her children away. She keeps a tight reign on the candy store and knows when even a pretzel has gone missing. It is rumored that Grandma has thousands of dollars stashed away somewhere in the house.
- Bella. She is a grown woman, in her mid-thirties, but has the mind of a child. She will be that way always, and she should be in the Home. Grandma has threatened her many times to go into the Home, but Bella knows she does not want to be alone. She uses this to her advantage. That is Grandma’s weakness. Bella is a strange mix of child and adult, having her own hopes and dreams. She believes she is going to marry Johnny, an usher at the movie theatre. They’re getting married because they’ve gone to four movies together. He is like Bella, but he cannot read. Bella wants to help him open up a restaurant but needs five thousand dollars to do so.
- Louie. He’s a little gangster! Really, he is. Or, as Arty calls him, a henchman. He’s a real jokester. He carries a black bag, a gun, and has men in a black Studebaker following him. He comes into town spur of the moment and is very antsy. He hires Jay and Arty to keep a lookout for him, and to tell anyone that he’s not around. He teaches the boys what “moxie” is and the boys learn Louie was a rough kid. He ran away from home several times and got in with the wrong crowd to survive.
I love this story. I read it in my high school drama class, and I had my sixth grader creative writing class read it this past year. It is a funny story. Everyone fears Grandma. Bella has grown-up dreams without a grown-up mentality. She sees the world in a different light, and it’s a beautiful and sad thing. Louie cracks me up. He’s just hilarious, and he scares the boys, keeps them on their toes.
Recommendation – Buy, Borrow or Skip?
Buy it. If you don’t want to read the play, but the film version with Richard Dreyfuss. It stays pretty true to the script and brings to life the humor – and the embodiment of Grandma – to life.
Marvin Neil Simon is an American playwright and screenwriter. He is one of the most reliable hitmakers in Broadway history, as well as one of the most performed playwrights in the world. Though primarily a comic writer, some of his plays, particularly the Eugene Trilogy and The Sunshine Boys, reflect on the twentieth century Jewish-American experience.