There is no play in Neil Simon’s oeuvre more autobiographical than “Lost in Yonkers,” the playwright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1991 work that follows two teenage boys to their grandmother’s house in Yonkers, where they wait out a wartime year while their father travels the country working to pay back the loan shark debts that kept his wife’s last days on earth from being too difficult to bear.
It’s the tender humor of family trouble that makes this play such a gem, and also makes it such rich material for the veteran board-treaders of Quogue.
But this play shines, in part, because of two newcomers to the HTC stage.
The young actors Christopher Darrin as 12-year-old Artie and Jamie Baio as 15-year-old Jay do a fine job of playing a couple of street-smart half-orphan sons who suck up their troubles for the sake of their emotionally impoverished family.
Younger Artie, with his slicked-back hair and his tough-guy attitude, is one kid who knows what’s really going on and isn’t afraid to tell it like it is. At the ripe old age of 12, Christopher Darrin gets it.
Mr. Baio, a veteran of the stages at Sayville and Ward Melville high schools, is the family mediator, polishing his clan’s mythologies with a charming doe-eyed sincerity that just thinly hides his pain.
Rebecca Edana bowled over the opening night crowd as addled Aunt Bella — her confused and cockeyed good nature fuses with exceptional comedic timing in a performance not to be missed. I’ve seen her perform three times now at HTC, and this role gives her the most room to shine. She runs with it.
Her brother Louie is played by Edward Kassar with all the sorts of hardness for the world and softness for his family that you’d expect from a bag man for the mob. He seems to be one man in his undershirt confessing his lack of feelings to his cold mother, and another man, a stranger, in a pinstripe suit peeking through the blinds waiting to make his exit.
The lighting design by Sebastian Paczynski is pitch perfect — it is warm with incandescent glow of hallways and bedrooms at night, clear as a sunshiny day glimpsed through the springtime windows, ominous for mobsters and clear-on to the shade-drawn dinge of an upstairs apartment on a hot summer day.
Diana Marbury has had a great run of recent motherly roles at HTC, but in this role as Grandma Kurnitz, well, she takes the cake, hides it in a low cabinet down in Kurnitz’s Kandy Shop, and accuses everyone else of stealing it.
Even the audience flinches when she looks at her family down the barrel of her cane. We winced at every tortured step she took. She had razor wire for brains, wrapped inside a thick German head full of tortured tearless logic.
It’s family life tinged with just such logic that made Neil Simon the playwright he is, and it’s the universality of all of our family delusions that make the heavy parts of this play, which isn’t thoroughly a comedy, as tender and necessary as the jokes.
“I think part of what made me a comedy writer is the blocking out of some of the really ugly, painful things in my childhood and covering it up with a humorous attitude,” he once wrote.
Director George Loizides acknowledges the humanity of this idea in his playbill introduction to this production.
“Lost in Yonkers is considered Simon’s best play, in part because it is not a typical comedy,” he writes. “The play is a hybrid, brilliantly weaving comedy and drama into a unified masterwork, about the bonds that stretch across generations to help us shape our own identities and give us a sense of belonging.”
We were pleased to see how well-tuned this production had become by opening night, and there are still more than two weeks left for the cast to continue to shine. If you’re planning to see any live theater on the East End this season, this is the play to see.
“Lost in Yonkers” continues at the Quogue Community Hall through April 17. Thursday and Friday showtimes are 7 p.m., Saturday showtimes are 8 p.m. and Sunday matinees are at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $30 and are available online here.