Hampton Theatre Company’s current production of Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers is sure to move audiences as much as it inspires them to laugh. A play that begins quite lightly as a family comedy blooms into a somber tale of the hereditary nature of pain through generations and the attempts to escape it.
Lost in Yonkers originally debuted in December of 1990 in North Carolina, subsequently moving in early 1991 to Broadway for a production starring Mercedes Ruehl (Big, The Fisher King) as Aunt Bella and Kevin Spacey as Uncle Louie. The play earned Simon the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in that year, which later spawned the film adaptation, also penned by Simon, in 1993, keeping Ruehl as Aunt Bella and casting Richard Dreyfuss as Uncle Louie.
Set in Yonkers in 1942, the play opens with brothers Jay (Jamie Baio) and Arty (Christopher Darrin), 15 and 13 respectively, who are placed in the care of their grandmother (Diana Marbury) after their mother dies and their father, Eddie (Russel Weisenbacher), becomes a traveling salesman. Stepping up as their caretaker and surrogate mother is their Aunt Bella (Rebecca Edana), characterized by her easily excited and naïve mannerisms reminiscent of a schoolgirl, and who is still standing in the shadow of her dominating mother.
Contrasting Aunt Bella is Uncle Louie (Edward Kassar), a “bag man” for the mob who is hiding from the gangster Hollywood Harry. He chooses to lay low in his childhood home, acting as a surrogate father and mentor to the boys, teaching them that to survive in the world and in a family, one must have “moxie.” Appearing in one of the show’s defining scenes is Aunt Gert (Catherine Maloney), the last of the boys’ colorful relatives, who suffers with an absurd speech impediment. Despite her brief appearance, Gert provides some of the show’s biggest laughs and signifies the lingering trauma their mother inflicted on her children.
Lost in Yonkers is a play that immediately grabs the audience, who share Jay and Arty’s experience—being exposed to a new environment and meeting their estranged extended family for the first time. This allows the play to juggle the comedy and the drama. The boys’ extended family is initially depicted as a colorful collective of personalities, bearing a near-cartoonish quality. Later, their quirks reveal the lasting effects and defense mechanisms of growing up with a cold and cruel mother.
The presence and motif of cinema and the escape it offers from the pain of the real world resides in the background of the play, providing a palatable fantasy through which the characters view life.
Jay and Arty, for example, initially compare living with Uncle Louie to being in a James Cagney film. This falsehood is exposed later in the play when, during a confrontation with Louie, the boys realize his tough, Bogart-esque moxie is an act, put on to survive his difficult mother.
Similarly, Bella develops an obsession with the movies, viewing them as a world where one can feel safe, and as a model for the perfect family she longs to create—one entirely divorced from her painful upbringing.
The two role models and stand-in parental figures for the boys, Rebecca Edana’s Aunt Bella and Edward Kassar’s Uncle Louie, steal the show. Both actors provide a large portion of the laughs while also demonstrating the two paths one can take—Bella’s compassion or Louie’s moxie—to survive a dysfunctional family.
Diana Marbury also provides an exemplary performance as Grandma Kurnitz, the source of the play’s drama. Together, Edana, Kassar and Marbury create an outstanding trifecta: the cold, domineering mother and her two grown children who continue struggling against her.
Under the direction of George A. Loizides, Lost in Yonkers presents a wonderful and emotional depiction of family and solidifies the play’s key theme of the importance of family in times of strife, and how these bonds shape our identities.
Lost in Yonkers runs Thursday–Sunday through April 17 at Quogue Community Hall, 125 Jessup Avenue in Quogue. Show times are Thursdays and Fridays at 7 p.m., Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m.
The Hampton Theatre Company will once again be offering special dinner and theater packages in collaboration with the Southampton, Westhampton Beach, Hampton Bays and Quogue libraries. For complete information about the dinner and theater packages and to reserve show tickets, visit hamptontheatre.org. Tickets are also available by calling OvationTix at 1-866-811-4111.