32. Lost in Yonkers by Neil Simon
In one of my theater classes, the teacher handed out a scene from Lost in Yonkers. None of the students had heard of this play. However Neil Simon’s work wound its way into our hearts. A cranky Jewish grandma, bored pre-teen boys, a friendly gangster, and a naive aunt – the cast of characters and plot are wonderful and engaging. The more that I delved into this script, the more I connected with the story. Although mental health seems to be a joke at first, the audience slowly sees the difficulty involved in caring for those with illness and how family can influence positive or negative growth. Normally, I do not review plays because they fall into a strange category between book and film. This seemed too good to overlook, however, so I decided to talk about it today.
Synopsis: When their father leaves them to join the army, Art and Jay find themselves stuck with their ornery, Jewish grandmother and confused but sweet aunt Bella. Stuck in Yonkers, the family learns about each other while struggling with their pasts and futures. Will Bella be able to grow up and live a normal life? Is Uncle Louie really a robber and if so, will he steal from Grandma? And what is wrong Aunt Gertie that she cannot barely speak? Colorful characters interact, grow, and find their true selves during this touching and hilarious play.
Recovery Pluses: Grandma suffered greatly as a child. Because of that, her philosophy of life is to be tough and simply thankful for each breath. Crying, whining, wishing for death – none of that is allowed. At first, the ornery lady seems malicious and unkind. Slowly, the audience sees how she longed to do the best for her children and thought that making them hard would keep them safe. However Bella, Eddie (the boys’ father), Gertie, and even Louie show how love and openness brings pain but makes life better.
Bella in particular is a poignant character full of zeal and joy for life. Sometimes she struggles with meltdowns, but her attitude is optimistic and innocent. Everyone alludes to her as crazy. Although the audience agrees at first, her struggles slowly make people realize that she is indeed a real person with normal wants, needs, and emotions. Her character shows the struggles of mental illness as well as the strengths of it.
Finally, this play shows the important role that nurture has on people. Grandma believed that she did the right thing hardening her children. However, Eddie exclaims that he might cry like a weakling, but at least he expresses his emotions. Gertie is said to be so frightened of her mother that she struggles to speak. Family has a huge impact – positive or negative – on mental health just as Lost in Yonkers depicts.
Cautions: Although light-hearted in the start, this play rapidly delves into deeper and more painful issues. Mental illness, past hurt, gangsters, guns, war, abuse, swearing, and more heavy subjects are touched upon by the end. Yet, this script stays away from being dark or hopeless. Teenagers (and perhaps tweens) and older would probably benefit the most from this play.
When people ask me about my favorite play, Lost in Yonkers is one of the first that pops into my mind. Although I have never seen it performed and rarely hear about it from others, this show holds an important place in my heart. Where else do you meet such a fun cast of characters who tug on your heart while making you cry? If you enjoy good theater, I suggest picking up this script or trying to find a video of the stage show (there is a movie, but I have not viewed it). Be prepared for a fun, inspiring tale.
Lost in Yonkers study guide on Steel River playhouse
Lost in Yonkers on Good Reads
Lost in Yonkers on Amazon