Lost in Yonkers
If you’re a regular at Scripps Ranch Theatre, you might be wondering what exactly they were up to when they decided to follow Charlayne Woodard’s Neat with Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers. Yonkers is worlds funnier than Neat, and its actors are both game and good (those teenage boys!), but there’s a complication at its heart, and the similarities are too strong to avoid comparison.
A refresher: Woodard’s play is a memoir of her family’s life with her aunt Neat, brain-damaged and so possessed of a childlike innocence — for good and ill. Simon’s play recounts the Kurnitz family’s life with Bella, who was nearly sent to “The Home” because, as the doctors put it, she would always be a child. There are plenty of other characters — and yeah, they’re characters, including a gangster uncle, a quietly monstrous matriarch, and a couple of teenage brothers who serve as our ticket into the story — but it’s Bella who drives the drama. And while she is portrayed with appealing, wide-eyed, just-shy-of-manic energy by Katee Drysdale, her dialogue is not that of a child, or even a childlike adult. Not the way Neat’s was. It’s too smart and too good, laced with too much understanding — of herself and others — and brimming with too much grownup compassion.
Maybe that’s what Simon was thinking: that any grownup who can actually say what they feel, tell the ugly truth with loving honesty, and not choke on the pain and bitterness brought on by their own suffering, must be a bit touched. And that such a soul would be the only one who could ever step outside the crushing cycle of generational dysfunction — the sort wrought by Grandma Kurnitz, whose foot was itself crushed by anti-semites in Germany, whose husband and two of her six children died shortly after she made it to America, who had no more love to give but still had to raise a family.
Anyway, it was enough to win Simon a Pulitzer in 1991, SRT mounts a fine production, and the juxtaposition is fruitful.