The dysfunctional New York family who won Neil Simon the Pulitzer
‘Lost in Yonkers’ is the admired playwright’s most Jewish work. Derek Bond, director of a new production, explains why
Neil Simon said Lost in Yonkers was not autobiographical but many of its elements seem to be drawn from his life
'Dying is easy,” Shakespearean comic actor Edmund Kean is supposed to have said on his death bed. “Comedy is hard”.
It is rare that a new playwright will attempt a comedy, and if they do, it is even rarer that it will actually work. But pulling off the high-wire act of creating a play that is not just funny, but also asks questions — that does not just make you laugh, but also think — that is a stunt that only experienced masters should attempt. Fortunately, with Lost in Yonkers, we are in very safe hands.
By the time Neil Simon wrote the play in 1992, he was already a household name on both sides of the Atlantic, having racked up awards and delighted audiences for over 20 years with plays and films like Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple and Brighton Beach Memoirs. There was even a theatre named after him on Broadway, an honour usually only bestowed posthumously.
Like many of his previous plays, Lost in Yonkers opened to packed houses and rave reviews. But it also won Simon the Pulitzer Prize for drama, the highest accolade any writer in the United States can receive.
It is August 1942, and brothers Jay and Arty (aged 15 and 13 respectively) find themselves in Yonkers — a smallish city on the northern edge of New York. Their father, Eddie, explains that he has got into debt to pay his late wife’s hospital bills.
Now she has gone, the loan shark wants paying. Eddie has found a job selling scrap metal, but has to travel around the southern states of the US for the best part of a year. While he is away, the boys must live with their grandmother and aunt, above the family’s candy store and ice cream parlour in Yonkers. How hard can that be?
But very little sweetness is dispensed by Grandma Kurnitz, a steely German immigrant who teaches the boys some important life lessons, whether they like it or not. The boys become reacquainted with their two aunts: childlike Bella and Gert, who speaks for half a sentence breathing out and speaks the second half breathing back in.
When Uncle Louie, a “freelance financial adviser” with a trilby hat and wing-tip shoes, turns up to lie low in the middle of the night, accompanied by a mysterious black satchel, it seems increasingly unlikely that the boys will make it through the year unscathed.
Simon says in his memoirs, The Play Goes On, that Lost in Yonkers is not autobiographical, and it isn’t: he did not grow up in Yonkers (he was from Washington Heights on Manhattan island), his grandmother was not from Germany (she was Lithuanian), and he did not have any aunts with speech impediments or learning difficulties.
But his father was away a great deal when he was young, his own wife died of cancer and he could not be separated from his brother, Danny. And of course, the Kurnitz family are Jewish, as is Simon.
Although his plays have never been explicitly Jewish, there is something inherently Jewish about a lot of his characters. Perhaps even his trademark bittersweet, humour-in-the-face-of-adversity style is something specifically Jewish. (Although, judging by the DVDs of Old Jews Telling Jokes circulating among the cast during rehearsals , if there is such a thing as a Jewish style of humour, it probably involves dirty jokes about rabbis.)
At first glance, the family in Lost in Yonkers might seem quite unconnected to their Jewish heritage: they work on Saturdays, never mention going to synagogue, or being barmitzvah-ed, do not use Yiddish slang, and so on. Yentl or Fiddler on the Roof, this is not. But there are a few, darkly ironic references to what it means to be Jewish in 1942. Eddie (played in our production by Jonathan Tafler) says: “If my mother hadn’t come here 35 years ago, I could’ve been fighting for the other side. Except I don’t think they’re putting guns in the hands of Jews over there.”
The reason why Grandma (Bernice Stegers) is so cruel to her children slowly emerges: she has experienced cruelty herself, being beaten with sticks because she is Jewish in her native Germany.
She wants her children and grandchildren to survive, to be strong, even if that is at the cost of their affection. “It’s not so important that you hate me,” she tells Arty “It’s only important that you live.”
There is something very powerful about an older Jewish woman, having survived persecution, giving her all to make sure that the generations that follow her survive.
For me, along with the humour, it is this struggle for survival that is one of the play’s most Jewish qualities. The other is the importance of family. When I was 18, a friend invited me to his brother’s barmitzvah. I stayed with his family in Edgware, and I was blown away by how welcoming his family was — I instantly felt at home, and family and community were absolute priorities to all the Jewish people I met. I knew when I was casting the play that the actors would need to reflect that; to feel like a family, a close one that has been through a great deal together.
Casting a play is a tricky business. It is one of the only jobs where discrimination on gender, age, race and appearance is not only part of the job, it basically is the job. But there is some latitude — if you’re casting a character that is 35, you don’t only audition actors who are exactly 35. You look at actors with a “playing age” of 35. They could be any age, but as long as they look convincingly 35, it does not matter.
The same is true of race or ethnicity in casting: when casting a Jewish family the important thing is that they look and feel like a family. I hope that any audience will be able to recognise themselves in the Kurnitz family: the matriarch, the siblings supporting each other through thick and thin, other generations seemingly recently arrived from another planet. But for a Jewish audience, I hope there will also be stronger resonances, older relatives fleeing persecution to seek out a better life for their children, for example. But, whatever the audience, I hope they laugh. A lot.
‘Lost in Yonkers’ is at Watford Palace Theatre from September 13-October 6. Box Office 01923 225671 www.watfordpalacetheatre.co.uk