What Makes You Free?

It is 1942 and in Poland, Jews are marching into the gas chambers.  But in Yonkers, they are ostensibly dealing with family problems.  When Eddie (Dominic Comperatore) finds himself terribly in debt after the death of his wife, he drops his two sons Arty (Russell Posner) and Jay (Matthew Gumley) off with their uncompromising German grandmother (Cynthia Harris).  They are joined by Aunt Bella (Finnerty Steeves), a thirty-five-year-old child and Uncle Louie (Alec Beard), a low-level gangster who acts like he heads Murder, Inc.

But Neil Simon’s choice of time in Lost in Yonkers is not accidental.  Like the shadow of the guillotine that hangs over the aristocracy in Christopher Hampton’s Dangerous Liaisons, Auschwitz is present in every moment of this drama.  There are vague references to the treatment of Jews in Germany and words like “survivor” are carefully dropped into the conversation; when Grandma says her children must be “like steel” we know that Mr. Simon is speaking more to Berlin in the ‘forties than the turn-of-the-century antisemitism she is recalling.  In the first chapter of David Mamet’s book The Wicked Son, he writes over and over again, “The world hates the Jews,” as if it is his mantra.  Some form of that line must be rattling around in these characters’ heads throughout the entire production.

So The Odd Couple this is not.  Mr. Simon, usually the cutesy dramatist whose work seems to have more in common with Alan Alda than Raul Hilberg, is here addressing the definitive moment in modern Jewry and examining what kind of lives we can live after the Holocaust.  The options he presents are not pretty: for Eddie, it is to play the perpetual loser; for Louie, to cut off all ties to others and exploit the poor schmucks like Eddie; for Bella, to remain unhappily ignorant, to stunt maturation as a means of escape; and for Grandma, the choice is to turn your blood into ice—we get the sense that when she finally will hear about the Holocaust, she will be unsurprised.

Which is not to say Lost in Yonkers isn’t entertaining; on the page, it reads as a little forced, but realized here it has some moments of genuine charm.  In particular Mr. Posner, the skinny redheaded actor who squeaks out some of the play’s funnier lines, is entirely winning.  After telling Jay that hanging around Uncle Louie “is like having a James Cagney movie in your own house,” the woman sitting behind me whispered, “I want to eat him.”  Ms. Steeves also does a fine job, skillfully balancing between childish joy and brutal self-awareness, while Mr. Beard exudes the right amount of bravado.

Every Jew must confront the reality of the Holocaust—reactions range from Primo Levi’s suicide to Mel Brook’s writing The Producers—and here Mr. Simon gives us what feels like his typical fare and is instead, as he referred to it, one of “the bleakest of plays.”  It is not a great work of art (he is no David Mamet) but this revival does about as much justice to the play as is possible.

Lost in Yonkers runs through April 14th at the Beckett Theatre.  410 W. 42nd Street  New York, NY.

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