“It’s not so important that you hate me, it’s only important that you live”
Neil Simon’s play Lost in Yonkers starts in August 1942 and after their mother dies of cancer and their father has to take on a job away from home to pay off the debts for her treatment, young teenagers Jay and Arty Kurnitz find themselves deposited at the door of their grandmother’s flat on top of a sweet shop in the city of Yonkers. But there’s no warm family embrace waiting for them, Grandma Kurnitz barely spoke to her son and initially doesn’t even want to take in her grandchildren. She finally relents and so the boys stay there for a year, learning a whole new set of life lessons as she rules the roost with the harshest rod of steel and they get reacquainted with the aunts and uncles they hardly know.
Trapped with no chance of escape, the trials and tribulations of Jay and Arty are highly amusingly played by Jos Slovick and the playful Keith Ramsay, the misfortune of their situation more than tempered by their teenage concerns and constant mini-battles against the strictness of their new life regime. Some light relief comes in the form of the presence of their childlike Aunt Bella, their dodgy Uncle Louie and the later arrival of Aunt Gert complete with random speech impediment and the boys find themselves fitting into an entirely new family dynamic and one which their presence subtly changes.
But behind the bluff humour and the comic strokes, there also lies a tragedy of almost Chekhovian proportions, the way in which the family has been affected by the complete closing-down of its matriarch – Laura Howard’s Bella epitomising this perfectly with what has to be considered one of the outstanding performances of the year. Her learning difficulties mean that people rarely take her seriously, especially in her fractured family, but every utterance is rooted in her own truth. From the backtracking from a faux pas about the boys’ mother to the incendiary statement of her lifelong intents as she finally gathers enough courage, Bella is utterly without guile and Howard breathes an incredible naturalism into her which is just heart-breakingly effective, especially as she still has to ask for someone to comfort her, even at her lowest point.
Grandma Kurnitz’s own story is also powerfully emotive, the incredible harshness of her character seemingly inexplicable despite her history as a Jewish person in Germany, but Bernice Stegers makes a compelling case for the sheer conviction of belief in the path she has taken. And the way in which we discover how her children have variously assimilated her determination to ensure their survival at all costs ultimately becomes quite moving, the impact that persecution has upon those that escape, here given extra poignancy due to the Jewishness of the family but a message that resonates universally.
Derek Bond’s direction ensures that all the colours of Neil Simon’s play shine brightly and so mere moments after tears are running down one’s face, there are soon chuckles to be had, and the balance that is consequently achieved is just superb in James Perkins’ visually interesting set. Lost In Yonkers may be set last century and an ocean away, but its portrayal of the frustrations and intimacies that go hand in hand at the heart of so much of family life is as powerful today as it ever has been. Matched by an intelligent production that understands the importance of needing to cry as well as laugh, Watford Palace Theatre has come up with an almighty triumph.