"Lost in Yonkers" had me teary in the first act, sobbing in the second. Tragedy, that's what makes a great comedy. That's why Neil Simon's play just won the Pulitzer Prize.
Tickets have been hard to get ever since the play opened on Broadway early this spring. Simon was pre-Pulitzer popular.Most of Simon's plays and screenplays have a hard, sad edge to them. "Lost in Yonkers" has an edge of iron.
The play opens with 15-year-old Jay and his 13-year-old brother, Arty, alone and bored in the stuffy living room of their grandmother's house in Yonkers. They can barely stand to visit her; now their father wants them to live with Grandma for a few months.
"Did you ever notice there's something wrong with everyone on Dad's side of the family?" asks Jay. Arty thinks about it. Jay says, "Yeah. Mom told me."
But it is true. One of Jay and Arty's aunts is, to put it kindly, "simple." Another can't talk and breathe at the same time. Their uncle is a bagman for the Mafia. Their grandmother is mean.
As the play progresses, we come to see the sweet side of all these relatives - except Grandma Kurnitz.
She is a cruel woman.
We eventually understand her. We see the humor in what she says. We never sympathize with her very much.
Yet it is her character that elevates this play from a good comedy to Pulitzer stuff.
In Grandma Kurnitz, Neil Simon hits us with a hard truth: Some people have small hearts.
Even if they are our relatives, even if they are supposed to love us and we are supposed to love them - they've no love to spare. We can only hurt ourselves trying to wrench affection from them.
Arty and Jay contrive a sort of relationship with Grandma; they have other adults who love them and don't need much from her. Their father and aunts and uncle who, as children, did need her love, still labor painfully to get it.
The saddest part of the play is when Bella, the child-simple grown-up, describes what she's done for love. Bella prompts the most tears - but the most laughs as well. Her character is pure pleasure to watch.
She's a pleasure because Neil Simon wrote Bella so well and also because Mercedes Ruehl plays her so well on Broadway.
It's difficult to separate the pleasure of seeing a well-written play from the pleasure of seeing it acted by the best actors in the United States.
Sometimes, at the Deseret News, the theater critics will get a call saying, "You've got to go see this play. Sure it's only community theater, but I promise it's better than anything you'll see on Broadway."
Usually this call is from a mother of one of the actors. Still a statement like that leaves you wondering, "How does Utah theater really compare to Broadway?"
To answer: "Lost in Yonkers" is produced by Emanuel Azenberg, winner of 29 Tony awards. It's directed by Gene Saks (three Tonys) who's directed seven Neil Simon plays and four of his films.
In addition to Mercedes Ruehl, Irene Worth is in the play. As Grandma, Worth turns in a performance equal to anything in her career, a career that includes acting opposite John Gielgud, Rex Harrison and Alec Guinness. The two young boys, Jamie Marsh and Danny Gerard, are also excellent actors.
It's not like we never see such quality in Utah. We do sometimes at Pioneer Memorial, sometimes when national touring companies come through, occasionally at the Cedar City Shakespeare Festival.
But comparing Salt Lake theater-in-general to a Broadway production is like comparing one of Neil Simon's lesser works to "Lost in Yonkers." It's like comparing a "pretty good play" to "Pulitzer Prize."- Susan Lyman-Whitney saw "Lost in Yonkers" when she was in New York recently covering fashion shows for the Deseret News. The play is running at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. The latest Associated Press list of Broadway tickets lists seating as "available." For information, call the theater at (212) 221-1211 or Ticketron at (212) 246-0102.