When I taught a writing class at the University of Colorado Boulder, I assigned the students to write a personal essay in which food was the focus. One wrote about his grandmother. Every summer, he spent a miserable two weeks at his grandparents’ house, a visit he dreaded. His grandmother knew him well, and for every meal she served up food that he particularly hated and was unable to swallow. He remained hungry the entire time— though every now and then his grandfather, a sad and defeated man, would secretly slip him a morsel. The grandmother eventually entered a nursing home. “She doesn’t recognize me now,” the student wrote, “and I’m glad.”
With our current president, I’ve been thinking a lot about toxic personalities, and it’s hard to imagine a personality more toxic than Grandma Kurnitz in Neil Simon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Lost in Yonkers, which premiered on Broadway in 1991 and is being revived by Miners Alley Playhouse. For most of his writing life, Simon was known for light comedies like The Odd Couple, but eventually he began creating deeper and more shadowed work. Lost in Yonkers has very funny moments, but at its core it’s deeply serious. And at that core is the question of what made Grandma Kurnitz, whose dishonesty, coldness and violent rages distorted the lives of her entire family, who she is.
We learn she had a rough childhood that included being beaten with sticks — a form of discipline she also inflicted on her own children. But other people who endured abuse have grown up capable of love, joy and connection. I don’t know if it’s a fault or a virtue of the script that the character remains unyielding throughout, though there is a moment when her rage and despair escape in a single anguished cry. To have her relent or show a second’s empathy would have been sentimental and unconvincing. Yet there’s something disappointing about the stiff, unchanging figure she presents throughout.
The other characters include her children: posturing, small-time hood Louie; mentally damaged Bella; Gert, with her strange breathing problems; and kindly, beaten-down and prone-to-tears Eddie, whose predicament provides the frame for the plot. Eddie is in financial trouble, and the job he’s found will take him out of town for close to a year. He has no alternative but to leave his two sons — fifteen-year-old Jay and Arty, who’s thirteen — with their grandmother. No one is happy about this. Another central part of the narrative is the predicament of sweet, shaky, tic-ridden Bella, who’s forced to take care of Grandma Kurnitz but escapes to the movies as often as she can, and yearns for love and children of her own.
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The play weaves a tapestry from the intertwining lives of this family. Almost every character is rich and specifically delineated. Everyone — the boys included, and even Gert with her silent sympathetic presence and difficulty finishing a sentence — has his or her share of fear, hope, weakness and strength. And at the center is that single soul-shriveling figure.
Miners Alley has been exploring Simon’s work for some time, presenting The Odd Couple four years ago and all three plays in his famed autobiographical trilogy: Brighton Beach Memoirs in 2015, Biloxi Blues a year later, and Broadway Bound in 2017. Under the sure directorial hand of Warren Sherrill, Lost in Yonkers shines. The timing and pacing are subtly perfect, the interactions among characters absorbing, and the cast in some ways a revelation. Youngsters are always hard to cast, but Dee Jimenez and Ben Feldman are terrific as Jay and Artie, respectively — Jimenez’s Jay older and more cynical, Feldman projecting that thirteen-year-old mix of understanding and appealing, innocent ignorance. Haley Johnson brings Bella, with her warmth and sorrow, to life, Rory Pierce is a kindly, downtrodden and sometimes humorous Eddie, and Damon Guerrasio’s wise-guy posturing as Louie is convincingly unconvincing. MacKenzie Beyer is strong in the smaller role of Gert.
This is a production that does full justice to the play’s humor and sadness, as well as its humanity.
Lost in Yonkers, presented by Miners Alley Playhouse through March 3, 1224 Washington Avenue, Golden, 303-935-3044, minersalley.com.