'Zo. How tough is Grandma? She's so tough that a horse fell down and crushed her foot and she didn't even take an aspirin.' Badda-boom. Delivered like vaudeville. By an almost-smart aleck kid. Aching for a laugh.
This is the way that Neil Simon (b. 1927) learned to tell stories. First, in his own dysfunctional family, where he created a comic persona with a stethoscope that earned him the nickname "Doc." Then, playing hooky at movies starring Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Laurel and Hardy, where he was regularly thrown out of the theater for laughing too loud. Then, as an adolescent, putting on comedy sketches in a department store with his older brother, Danny. And, at last, as a sketch and gag writer for the likes of Phil Silvers and Sid Caesar, working alongside comedy masters like Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, and Woody Allen, "the most talented group of writers," Simon claimed, "that up until that time had ever been assembled."
When he started writing his own plays for the live stage with Come Blow Your Horn (1961), Simon mined his own biography and that of his closest associates. In the first play, the protagonist leaves home and moves in with his older brother, trying to live the life of a swinging ladies man. In Barefoot in the Park (1963), the buttoned down main character and his free spirit new bride try to adjust to their personality differences. When his brother Danny divorced and moved in with another divorced man for a while, Neil Simon asked himself, "What's funny about divorce?" and came up with The Odd Couple (1965). Although he can write brilliantly outside his experience when he adapts from other writers' materials (Little Me, 1962; Sweet Charity, 1966; Promises, Promises, 1968; The Good Doctor, 1973), most of his plays contain at least a shiny nugget of autobiography.
This grounding in the world he knows best ensured that Neil Simon became the most commercially successful playwright of modern times. With over 40 plays produced and innumerable screenplays filmed, he practically owned Broadway, where sometimes he has had up to four of his works playing simultaneously and has had seventeen Tony nominations, three Tony awards, a Pulitzer for Lost in Yonkers, and many, many other honors, including being the only living playwright to have a theater named after him.
But this world of memory isn't inherently funny. Basically, it's a cruel, painful world that Simon, like so many great Jewish comedians before him, forces into laughter. Neil Simon was born in the Bronx, July 4, 1927 (which makes him the same age as Jay in Lost in Yonkers), to a Jewish, first generation family. His father, a garment salesman, was cold and unloving, frequently abandoning the family for months. His parents fought constantly, but stayed together. In the financial hardship of the Great Depression, Neil and his older brother Danny were often sent off to live with relatives. "The horror of those years," Simon has written, "was that I didn't come from one broken home but five." Besides the comedic routines created with his brother Danny, Neil's writing became his escape, his shelter, and his independence.
Simon repeats this situation of kids being fobbed off on unwelcoming relatives in Lost in Yonkers. Jay and Arty, boys from a completely Americanized generation, are stuck with their terrifying, cane-swinging German Jewish grandmother while their father goes on the road during the war. Along with the frightening, domineering matriarch, the boys have to deal with their father's sisters and brother, each one emotionally injured and life-limited through being raised by the abusive, emotionally withholding methods of their mother. Bella, beaten into brain-injured childishness, Gert, frightened into awkward psychosomatic speech patterns, and Louie, challenged into a cold, tough guy posture that gets him in trouble with the mob. No one is ever allowed to cry. "There's something wrong with everyone on Pop's side of the family," says Jay, and their oddball quirks makes each of them a source of laughter. At first.
Because, at first, we see this terrorized household through the eyes of youngsters who can only understand how their grandmother's steely authority affects and restricts them. But this is a coming of age story and as they, particularly Jay, grow up a little, the perception changes. As the boys' see with more understanding and compassion, we also come to see Grandma, not as the laughable butt of the horse-crushed-her-foot joke, but as a young girl whose experience of burgeoning European anti-Semitism forces her to make a choice between warmth and vulnerability and cold, harsh survival. Grandma's choice actually saves her family ("Und if you vere a boy growing up in Germany, you would be dead now."), but the consequences to her children of her emotional shut-down are immensely damaging.
The war, the holocaust (which is barely alluded to), the raging fury of German Naziism (the full flowering of the anti-Semitism that crushed the young Grandma in the 1880s), these are all shadows haunting the background of Lost in Yonkers. One of the questions asked by the play concerns the terrible chasm of comprehension between the immigrant generations who were branded with such misery and abuse and tried to leave it behind and the American-born generations who didn't have to face it, but for whom the past is a shaping legacy. How can they understand each other? How can they deal with the guilt? When they better understand the past, at least for their own family, Jay and Arty are better able to function within that family. And the movement toward some small kind of positive change comes when Bella, the most damaged of the children, gains the courage to confront her mother and the two edge closer to mutual respect.
The remarkable thing about Lost in Yonkers is that it's a play about pain and loss that celebrates family, survival, and endurance, and a play fueled by rage that is overflowing with the laughter of resolution.
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the theatre.