You can’t choose your family.
The old cliche rang insistently through my mind as I watched Lost in Yonkers, Neil Simon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy/drama currently receiving its first New York City revival courtesy of The Actors Company Theatre. (Read the lovely New York Times review.) The story of two teenage boys left to live with their tyrannical Grandmother Kurnitz and mentally challenged Aunt Bella after their mother’s death, the play is often sited as comic master Simon’s deepest work–with its atypical dramatic climax and its parade of siblings emotionally and physically damaged by the sins of their parents.
Though it does get plenty of laughs (many thanks to stage newcomer Russell Posner as the youngest boy Arty), this intimate production directed admirably by Jenn Thompson focuses on the real pain that underlies the play. This more dramatic approach (down to an almost Arthur Miller-esque unfinished set with brooding cloudscape) highlights that the script is indeed worthy of serious consideration– it is tightly, almost unbearably, wound in its theme of familial scars–and it makes the climatic turns feel well prepared for and emotionally cathartic. However, there are times that the focus on subtlety leaves the unmistakeable Simonized set-ups and punchlines uncomfortably incomplete, ghost jokes lingering in the air. The play’s heart shines through, though, in an inspired performance by Finnerty Steves as Aunt Bella, beautifully walking a very delicate line between the truth and comedy in Bella’s confusion. She fills then breaks our hearts.
If I sound particularly engaged (code for “running on and on”) about this play, it’s because the Kurnitz’s are family to me. In ye olden days when I was an actor, I ended up playing both boys in Lost in Yonkers–in two productions that were important in my life. (If you’re interested in some true backstage tales & personal reflections from my tour of duty in Yonkers, please do keep reading after the jump…)
An Actor’s Nightmare/Dream Come True: Right out of college, I was hired to understudy the role of Jay (the 15 year old brother) for two weeks in Yonkers‘ Chicago Premiere production at the Royal George Theatre (directed by Michael Leavitt) while the regularly understudy was on vacation. I would barely learn the script, get a rehearsal or two with the stage manager and get my first professional “acting” check without ever performing the role. Unbeknownst to me (and the rest of the cast), the actor playing Jay–who like me was almost a decade older than the character–decided I should get to go on after all my work. Such a thoughtful gesture…if he had warned any of us! He played sick and I got the call a few hours before the show. Somewhere between flop sweat and catatonic, I rushed to the theater to appear on my first professional stage–in a smash hit that had been running for a year already.
I was quickly introduced to the cast, pinned into costumes and thrust out onto stage with only the most tenuous grasp on this large role. Ten minutes into the play, the always-divine theater pro Paula Scrofano made her entrance as Bella, took one look at this stranger sitting on the couch beside her and lost her mind–a deep, engulfing blank glazing over her eyes. I barely knew my lines; I certainly didn’t know hers. Seeking help, I turned to the other actor on the couch, an actual 13 year old playing Arty. He smiled at me like a golden retriever pup. I was on my own. Somehow, I bobbed and weaved around the script, improvising a grab bag of awkward questions and random lines I pulled from my head like it was a bingo drum with dialogue on the balls. By the good grace of Dionysus, we made it through and by the time I finally got off-stage at intermission, I had the intense will to survive of a scarred vet heading into one more battle.
The war was not over. Jay has a big, cathartic monologue in the second act that I’d actually worked on and I was looking forward to getting to do some Schmacting. Uncle Louie fed me my cue and I took a deep, preparatory breath. Creak. A door opened on stage behind me when a door shouldn’t have been opening. I did a long, slow Bea Arthur take to look behind me. Two pages early for her entrance, the fearsome Chicago legend Marji Bank, as the Grandmother, was in the doorway looking at me like I was in the wrong place. I was forced to skip to my exit line and marched off.
After the show, Paula apologized to me profusely. Marji, in her curmudgeonly awesomeness, merely said, “It’s a boring monologue anyway.” The generous and wise stage manager Fred Klaisner took me aside, hugged me and said, “Kid, if you can survive that, you can handle anything.”
Thanks, I assume, to Fred’s recommendation, the producers soon hired me full time as the understudy–for Arty. I was 21 and still awaiting puberty, it would seem. I got to go on a ton as Arty over the next six months (I don’t think the real 13 year old was a fan of an 8 show week), learned how to be a professional, laughed a lot (remind me to tell you about the time Uncle Louie forgot to bring on his gun for a scene that is all about him packing heat) and felt I’d found a home on the Kurnitz couch–and in theater.
Maybe You Can Choose Your Family: Three years later, as an actor working in New York, I was cast as Jay in Maine’s Public Theatre production of Lost in Yonkers. Run by the dynamic duo of Christopher Schario and Janet Mitchko, the Public is a wonderful small professional theater in Lewiston/Auburn devoted to producing quality plays for an under-served community. They are the real deal, actively engaged in their town and making sure that theater is as essential as the Fire House or the local doctor. I was excited to return to the play now that I felt more confident in my skills; I was dubious about returning to the teenage character now that I was on the downward slide toward 30. (My fellow actors leaving bottles of Oil of Olay on my bed at night didn’t help.)
A few days before we opened, a close and far-too-young member of my extended family passed away suddenly. I had no understudy. Attempts were made to get me to the funeral and back in a 24 hour turn-around but it would be risky, very expensive for me (a barely solvent actor) and likely cause major problems for the financially lean theater. I was devastated. The cast and staff were incredibly kind. We focused on the work and I gave it my all. I leaned into the play like it was an old friend and it carried me through my guilt and frustration and sadness. The audiences in Maine were incredibly responsive and engaged. The mission of the Public inspired me, convinced me that I was doing something important sharing a story of hope in the face of loss. I’ve never forgotten the Public and their work because of it. Theater isn’t about red carpets and Tonys; it’s about communicating and joining together with people to share our lives.
In the end, I thought I wouldn’t be able to be with my family but, unexpectedly, I was. It was just a different family than I’d expected.