Doing Hard Time In `Yonkers'

Neil Simon mixes Angst with laughs in a study of character

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Lost in Yonkers Play by Neil Simon. Directed by Gene Saks. Starring Irene Wirth, Mercedes Ruehl, Mark Blum.

AUDIENCES leave new musicals humming the hit songs. In Neil Simon's latest play, ``Lost in Yonkers,'' which premi`ered here and will soon begin its Broadway tryout performances, the audience leaves quoting the best lines.

The guy behind us said to his date: ``I loved the line about Aunt Belle, something about `She's a little closed for repairs.' That'll be all around the office tomorrow.''

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The line I liked was about Aunt Belle, who can't find her way home, and is really in her lovable, slightly fragmented way, the star of the show: ``She needs to wear a compass.''

Belle is among the family casualties in what appears to be one of Mr. Simon's semi-autobiographical plays, but few clues are given. His autobiographical trilogy, ``Brighton Beach Memoirs,'' ``Broadway Bound'' and the Tony award-winning ``Biloxi Blues,'' that opened between l983 and l986, marked a more serious turn for Simon. Like filmmaker Woody Allen earlier, Simon began moving away from early comedies and veering toward drama.

``Lost in Yonkers'' follows the same road. There are still some very funny lines in the play. But there are some scenes of family tragedy that may remind you more of Eugene O'Neill than Neil Simon.

The play is set in 1942 in the Hudson River city of Yonkers, N.Y., a place of perpetually dubious charm. ``Yonkers'' takes place in one set - a two- bedroom apartment over Kurnitz's Kandy Store. The Victorian building set by Santo Loquasto, who also did the period costumes, has the remote, haunting look of an Edward Hopper painting.

The play starts slowly, in fact it drags with exposition, as we learn that salesman Eddie Kurnitz (Mark Blum), a recent widower, is forced to leave his two young sons with their Grandmother Kurnitz for a year while he sells scrap steel in the South to pay off a $9,000 debt. The boys, Jay and Arty (winningly played by Jamie Marsh and Danny Gerard), are looking at a year of doing hard time in Yonkers.

Suddenly, like a bolt of goofy lightning, Aunt Belle enters and lights everything up. ``I couldn't go to the theater I looked for, so I went to the one I found,'' she explains to the family.

When we first see her, Belle wears a big ruffled pinafore like those in fashion for children, and she moves like a gawky girl. But she is a grown woman, full of love which she lavishes on her bizarre family.

Mercedes Ruehl gives a dazzling performance as Belle, playing her with endearing warmth, sweetness, and poignancy. She convinces us of Belle's transformation from the family's image of her as a slow sort of household maid to a woman with a full life of her own, including romance and possibly marriage.

While Mercedes Ruehl is the star of the show, that consummate actress Irene Worth is its superb villainess. She plays Grandma Kurnitz, the tough German-Jewish immigrant, a widow who supported her family with the candy store, but warped the lives around her with rigid harshness and the inability to love.

Ms. Worth plays her like Field Marshall von Ribbentropp, an almost fascist grandma, an authority figure who still instills fear in the hearts of her grown children.

In addition to Belle, there is Louie the mobster (Kevin Spacey); Gert (Lauren Klein), who has been since childhood so frightened she can't breathe or speak normally; and Eddie who is ``afraid to go up against'' his mother. In one moment of grim humor during a family talk, Grandma Kurnitz tells them, ``As far as I'm concerned, this conversation is deceased.'' Worth puts in a brilliant performance, bitter over a past which left her crippled and widowed, but strong as Mother Courage. By the end of the play she is softened by Bella's outburst about the marriage she's desperate for, to erase a life of not being loved or touched.

Director Gene Saks is at his best with the comedy scenes, keeping them prancing along from laugh to laugh, keeping a sure hand on the reins so that character is not submerged in stage business or one-liners. This play is much more about character than, say, a family comedy like George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's ``You Can't Take It With You.'' But the sudden moments of drama are more difficult to integrate and need more work, particularly in that all-important opening scene.

THIS is a very dark comedy indeed from Neil Simon, the most bankable and successful of comedy writers; many of his two dozen plays, from ``Barefoot in the Park'' and ``The Odd Couple'' to ``California Suite'' and ``Biloxi Blues,'' have also become hit films.

Simon has lost none of his whizz-bang talent for comic lines, but he is moving further away from the comedies of his past with this latest play, which contains nearly as much angst as laughs.

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