Ever the sentimentalist, playwright Neil Simon nevertheless has a knack for recognizing the ordinary citizen as interesting. Despite his penchant for safe answers and shallow ideals, Simon still manages to build hilarious dialogue and create characters in whom we invest emotionally. He takes us all in, and most of us enjoy the ruse--at least while we're watching. It's only after we leave the theater that we have to reckon with the holes in his sensibility.

Lost in Yonkers, now at the Arvada Center, makes a lot more sense than the 1993 movie based on the play. Despite Simon's failure to grapple believably with the moral issues he raises, this entertaining effort even probes a little way into dysfunctional family dynamics. And the Arvada Center production is smart, snappy and smooth as stainless steel.

"Steel," in fact, is the very word used by several characters to describe Mama Kurnitz. The tough old matriarch is the bane of her offspring's existence, and though she's stern, cold, tricky and abusive, there's a (perverse) method to her madness.

As the story opens, it's 1942, and Eddie Kurnitz has lost his wife to cancer. Deeply in debt for her hospital expenses, he has borrowed money unwisely from loan sharks. He asks his mother to take his two teenage boys for ten months while he earns enough money to pay back the sharks. She refuses, but her mildly retarded daughter, Bella, blackmails the old crone into letting the boys stay.

Bella needs a lot more than a couple of lively nephews; she needs a life, and Mama has seen to it that she doesn't have one. A persecuted Jew from Germany, Mama has had a tough life, including the loss of two of her six children, and it has turned her into ice. Punishing every slight childish infraction and even making up a few along the way, she has tormented and scarred each of the four kids. One son, Louie, has become a gangster; Eddie is a wimp in the old lady's eyes (though not in ours); daughter Gert has a nervous affliction; and Bella is continually afraid and miserable.

What Mama wants is to toughen up her children so they can survive in the harsh world. Little does she realize that the world she has made for them is much harder to navigate than the rest of American society.

The play ends on a hopeful note--Bella finds her feet, and we are forced to re-evaluate what we know about Mama. But this is just where Simon fails us. Having convinced us of Mama's steely exterior, he has a much harder time making us believe that Bella could possibly triumph over such a severe upbringing. We may feel for Mama's suffering, but abuse is abuse, whatever the excuse. And parental abuse leads to far more complicated problems than Simon has the guts to take on.

The playwright, however, goes to the trouble to make us like all the kids and pity their mother, using humor as a tool to foil horror. The older grandchild's wry observations of life under Steel Woman keep us laughing knowingly. The innocence and rebelliousness of Eddie's younger son, Arty, reminds us how hard it is to repress a child's spirit.

Isa Thomas as ice queen Mama Kurnitz turns in a royal performance: This woman could chew nails, digest barbed wire and sleep soundly through an avalanche. Yet Thomas also offers us glimpses of suffering too terrible to allow into conscious thought. TJ Geist, a local wonder, gives Bella an adorable nature without robbing her of realism. Part child, part desperate woman, Geist's Bella is a kindly individual who finally finds herself despite the confusions of her troubled mind.

Jan Van Sickle caricatures the tough gangster Louie, walking stiff-legged around the meticulous set, brandishing both his gun and his ideals about "moxie." You have to love his Nathan Detroit style and his broad strokes of humor. Klint Rudolph as Jay, and Michael P. Criste as Arty, are well matched, cute, funny and skilled.

With a cast like this, you're bound to enjoy any competent writing placed before you. And if Simon's play fails its moral vision, it still has something reasonably amusing--and decent--to say about the human condition.

Lost in Yonkers, through October 16 at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, 431-3939.


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