Brothers? Little Helper: Twyford?s Bella tries to save family, play.
Brothers? Little Helper: Twyford?s Bella tries to save family, play.

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Let’s get the lore out of the way: Neil Simon boycotted Washington for years, so the story goes, because Washington Post critic Lloyd Rose suggested the man had never quite figured out how to write a play. (Or words to that effect.) Rose was new to the chief critic’s chair, reviewing Lost in Yonkers during its pre-Broadway tryout at the National Theatre, and the play went on to win both a Tony and the drama Pulitzer—so you could see why Simon, who’d turned out a hit or two in his three decades of Broadway playmaking, might have been peeved.

Now, Lloyd Rose’s taste in plays was always interesting (and sometimes entertaining) to contemplate, and when it came to musicals, most musical-comedy buffs knew she and they would just have to agree to disagree. So many a D.C. theater geek has scored a schadenfreude-laced chuckle retelling the tale of that Lost in Yonkers kerfuffle over the years: Nothing comforts an actor or a director, after all, like thinking the critic who panned his show is a crank who wouldn’t know a Pulitzer-winner if it sat in her lap.

Now that I’ve actually seen Lost in Yonkers, however, I’m prepared to entertain a possibility that hadn’t occurred to me: Lloyd Rose got it right.

Oh, not that Neil Simon can’t write a play—that’s putting things a bit strongly, given the Brighton Beach trilogy. (Two-thirds of which, as it happens, are being revived in New York this season.) But Lost in Yonkers is a clumsy mess of a family melodrama, three parts stagy Borscht Belt comedy to two parts kitchen-sink realism, and if it’s got one hell of a confrontation at its core, it’s also got two or three characters with no real reason to exist—and Simon insists on putting one pair of them front and center all night long.

That would be Jay (Kyle Schliefer) and Artie (Max Talisman), the two kids whose dad plans to dump them at Grandma’s house while he goes over the river and through the Deep South selling scrap iron to pay off the loan shark who’s lately been eyeing his kneecaps. (Mom has died, you see, and Dad’s got a pile of bills; the U.S. health care system apparently had its drawbacks in the ’40s, too.)

Grandmother is a stern old thing, an icefrau with steel-gray braids and a sturdy cane for whacking noisy 13-year-olds, and it’s not until well into Act 1 that Simon clears away the knee-jerk joking and allows the real issue to come into focus: She’s so damaged and disappointed herself, this bitter old woman who’s lost one homeland and a couple of babies, that she’s crushed all hope of happiness out of her four adult children. And she’s prepared to start in on the grandkids if somebody doesn’t stand up and stop her.

But though they’re key to the plot’s central narrative device, the grandkids are thinly drawn creatures, seemingly dropped into Grandma Kurnitz’s living room to serve as comic foils and sideline commentators. Dad (Kevin Bergen) proves even more of a cipher—he’ll turn up again later, mostly so Grandma can mock him for being the family crybaby—and the business with Uncle Gangster (Marcus Kyd) and Aunt Funny-Talker (Lise Bruneau) is almost entirely filler.

Simon’s real interest is in Bella, the boys’ thirtysomething aunt, whose woman’s body belies a childlike sensibility. Born with scarlet fever, she’s never quite encountered the world the way most of us do, and her basically sunny disposition can cloud into something panicky and confused on a moment’s notice. It’s her redemption from the familial despair—or at least the hunger for it that’s awakened in her—that’s at the heart of Lost In Yonkers, and her disappointments that ring most true. And it’s she who finally brings Grandma to bay in that genuinely wrenching central clash.

Jerry Whiddon’s staging burns the oxygen out of the air in that one superlative moment, with Holly Twyford’s Bella shedding the sweetly scattered air that’s been her baseline all night and turning on her forbidding mother with the near-hysterical ferocity of someone with nothing left to lose. Tana Hicken’s Grandma Kurnitz goes shock-still as Bella lets fly with years’ worth of bottled-up resentment, and whether you read rage or pain or grief in the old lady’s rigid posture and her implacable façade, there’s no mistaking what she’s feeling when Bella finally reaches out to clamp her wrist in an untender hand: It’s the breaking of an emotional dam, the one that’s both kept her sane and stifled her humanity.

Whiddon’s production—dramaturged, as the Post’s Backstage column has puckishly pointed out, by none other than the now-retired Lloyd Rose—makes a moving case that there’s real anguish, real agony, behind Grandma Kurnitz’s harshness, that there’s a real kernel of tragedy in the stunted lives of her children and a real promise of a happier future for her and a newly confident Bella in the final scene.

That scene works so nicely, it’s worth noting, because all those distractions—the comic-relief grandsons, the needy dad, Aunt Funny-Talker and Uncle Gangster and all—have left the stage, taking Simon’s reflexive yuk-hunting with them. What’s left is honest and emotional and pungent and fine—and it’s the only thing in Lost in Yonkers that’s even remotely Pulitzer-worthy.