Plays & Players' production of Lost in Yonkers, Neil Simon's 1991 Pulitzer-winner, is a textured and moving family drama. The play only pretends to be a comedy, with its sitcom set-ups and one-liners. It also pretends to be a coming-of-age story about two teenage brothers, not unlike the brothers we know from Simon's autobiographical trilogy - Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, and Broadway Bound.
But the real center of the play is the real center of this German Jewish immigrant family: Grandma (the outstanding Helen McCrane), whose steely determination to survive at any cost has damaged all her now-grown children. It is a loveless life she leads: don't kiss, don't cry, be strong. She is suspicious of everyone ("she could tell if there was salt missing from a pretzel"), gazing at the world with unblinking eyes "like two district attorneys."
Her emotional opposite is her daughter, Bella (the lovely and endearing Angela Carolfi), whose is wildly needy but arrested in a permanent childlike state. She slaves away for her mother, understanding far more than anybody gives her credit for. The family business is, ironically, a candy and ice cream store, but there is little sweetness to the life upstairs.
The boys are played by Gavin Becker, a sixth grader with just the right smart-alecky manner, and, as his older brother, Jordan B. Mottram, who brings subtlety and authenticity to the role.
Their hand-wringing widowed father (Jim Ludovici) has found a job that involves traveling, so he leaves his sons with their grandmother, where they learn about survival firsthand. Their gangster uncle Louie (Ryan Ruggles) turns up, as does their aunt Gert (Catherine Mary Moroney), who can't breathe when she's near her mother.
The set (designed by Christopher Haig) gets all the details of this WWII New York apartment right - you can almost smell the years of accumulated cooking odors. The sound design (Leo Zumpetta) sets the mood with a medley of old-time hits (like "Mairzy Doats" and "There, I Said It Again").
Director Betty Chomentowski catches just the right tone - the play's human charm and a grim nostalgia for some bad old days. Despite Simon's reputation as a Mr. Broadway, his play is well served by this tiny intimate space, making us part of the family.
Through June 19 at Plays & Players' Skinner Studio, 1714 Delancey Place. Tickets $20-$25. Information: 800-595-4849 or www.playsandplayers.orgEndText