Before you learn anything else, you'd better learn Grandma's rules. No playing in the house. No feet on the sofa. No weakness. Above all, no crying.
Her discipline reigns supreme in the microcosmic Kurnitz household of Neil Simon's "Lost in Yonkers," which runs through Oct. 5 at Live Arts. Under Grandma's roof, feelings and affection have no place. But, of course, they must. Simon gives us a simple but moving tale of inevitable hope and comically irrepressible love.
Grandma (Doris Safie) is a widowed German-Jewish immigrant and the head of a familiarly dysfunctional household. She lives with her 35-year-old daughter Bella (Daria Okugawa) one floor above the family candy store in 1942 Yonkers, New York.
Our glimpse into this world comes through teenage grandsons Jay (Tim Longo) and Arty (Jonathan Stumpf). They come to stay with Grandma while their father, Eddie (Christopher Carter) capitalizes on the wartime economy by using a traveling sales job to dig himself out of debt. During Eddie's 10-month absence, Jay and Arty struggle to come of age and to make some sense of their tortured family and its warped past.
Grandma has learned to deal with loss by refusing to live. A severe Germanic childhood, plus the premature deaths of her father, husband, and two of her six children -- tragedies all left unmourned -- taught her to rule over the remaining four with an iron fist. Teach them to be strong, she thinks, harden them. Beat the weakness out of them. Only then might they survive.
Bella is developmentally disabled -- stuck permanently in the emotional no-man's-land between the mind of a child and the body of a woman. "There's just enough woman in me to make me miserable," she says.
Her sister Gert (Susan Perry) still displays the lasting scars of Grandma's harsh discipline in breathing problems -- a chronic gasp, fear recycled in each sentence
- that impede speech.
Louie (Eliezer Sobel) hides behind the veil of a small-time gangster's lifestyle, the thin mask of a tough guy. Eddie had started a family of his own that vaguely resembled normalcy before his wife -- Jay and Arty's mother -- died of cancer.
Nothing much actually happens in the play. But director Larry Goldstein seems to have a knack for this comparatively difficult type of drama -- making a thoroughly ordinary, everyday story seem transcendent and illuminating. With a largely plotless play like "Yonkers" -- essentially, the anatomy of a family -- we risk banality.
But Simon's wit, coupled with the energy of Goldstein's actors, rescues it. It is precisely because the household of this play could be yours or mine, without much transformation, that its wisdom seems so radiant, so much bigger than Grandma's living room.
The script's great irony lies in the fact that this wisdom of the hard knocks of living can come to us only through the voices of children. Literal children (Jay and Arty) and an effective one (Bella) dominate the dialogue.
This strategy might take some getting used to: A 13-year-old simply can't be a fully polished actor, no matter how talented. But it reminds us that if we look through the eyes of children, sometimes we can see our lives in a fresher light.
Staging "Yonkers" is a fitting choice for our current place and time. Most obviously, the play offers a tribute to the magic of New York -- Live Arts calls it a "valentine to New York" -- just as we mark an anniversary that celebrates the city's resilience, its humanity and its unmatched love of life (pain included). Indeed, this is a play about change and constancy, a throwback to a New York that we know is gone forever, but one we hope persists somehow, all the same.
And what's more, "Yonkers" kicks off a season of community theater dedicated to the idea of place. This year is Live Arts' final year in its Market Street space, before it moves south to the other side of the Downtown Mall. On that note, the season of plays -- appropriately themed "Road Trip" -- focuses us on our own shaky sense of place, broadened and seen anew in the light of a few evenings spent with other places and times.
So, just as we know that her family's abundance of love must, by play's end, begin to wear cracks in Grandma's steel fa
ade, we know that we must face up to the terrifying prospects of living in a modern age, of learning to confront cruel realities without letting that cruelty creep inside.
If all else fails, we can always sneak down, late at night in New York, for an ice cream soda, cherry on top, in the shop downstairs.