Write about what you know is one of the first admonitions given to rookie writers, and few have heeded it better than Neil Simon. Lost In Yonkers, one of his most successful examples, is getting a run at 2nd Story Theatre (through December 16).
The playwright drew from the well of autobiography numerous times, explicitly in such successes as Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, and Broadway Bound. In 1991, Yonkers won a Pulitzer Prize (for Drama), a Tony (Best Play), and a Drama Desk award (Best New Play).
Lost In Yonkers focuses on the reactions of 15-year-old Jay (Andrew Iacovelli) and 13-year-old Arty (Matthew Pirraglia). It's 1942 and their single-parent father, Eddie Kurnitz (Joe Henderson), will have to travel out of the Bronx for most of the year, selling scrap metal in order to pay off $9000 he owes, medical bills from the drawn-out death of his wife. Desperate, he begs his mother (Paula Faber) to let the boys stay with her.
Trouble is, Grandma is monstrously coldhearted and wants nothing to do with her grandsons. She is a Jewish refugee from Germany, rendered lame as a girl when a horse stepped on her foot, which then wasn't properly set. The experience apparently trained her for a life of neglecting others. A person doesn't survive in this world, she says, unless they are "like steel." Ironically, she makes a living serving children, running a candy store below her apartment with daughter Bella (Hillary Parker). The matriarch is so mean that she confiscates a movie fan magazine from her daughter, so she won't fill her head with "dreams that don't happen to people like us."
Bella is sweet-natured but mentally feeble — we're uncertain if the handicap resulted from her mother hitting her in the head with her cane too often or whether that source is just a family joke. Excitable on the calmest of occasions, Bella is especially delighted that she might have her nephews for company, so much so that in a rare outburst of defiance she tells her mother that if they don't move in she will move out.
Before long, the boys are entertained by the arrival of Uncle Louie (Ara Boghigian), a smartly dressed, tough-talking gangster wannabe who runs errands for the mob and is now hiding out from them. He is well acquainted with Grandma's penny-pinching ways ("She could tell that salt was missing from a pretzel"). The boys are wide-eyed in fascination. As Arty says, "It's like having a James Cagney movie in your own house!"
Since this is a coming of age story, we and Jay have our antennas up for learning experiences. Clearly Uncle Louie is someone to emulate in the way he keeps up his spirit, not letting life get him down as it did their defeated father and embittered grandmother. But the best teacher proves to be Aunt Bella, whose simplemindedness has kept her clear about what she wants out of life. She decides that she wants to be with the off-stage Johnny, a mentally challenged usher at the movie theater she frequents. He wants to marry her.