Writing either comedy or tragedy challenges any playwright. Few possess the skill to pen either of these genres well. Rarer still are those dramatists with the proficiency to combine the two in the same work while concurrently creating compelling journeys for the characters. In his Pulitzer Prize winning masterwork, Lost in Yonkers, Neil Simon executed all these daunting feats.
The play delivered an original take on a “coming of age” story. While Jay’s and Arty’s mother suffered with terminal cancer their father, Eddie, accumulated a large debt to pay for her treatment. In order to pay it off, he accepted a job that required him to travel throughout the country. After some cajoling and begging he talked his mother, whom he rarely visited after his marriage, into taking his sons in his absence. Since the grandmother and Aunt Bella operated a candy store, this would seem like a boy’s dream. Grandma’s strict temperament made it otherwise. Their interaction with eccentric characters such as the mysterious Uncle Louie, Aunt Bella and Aunt Gert added to the play’s appeal.
Mr. Simon developed a unique ability to express humor in otherwise tragic circumstances. It’s one feature that set him apart from other playwrights. Eddie explained that the loan shark he borrowed the money from sent flowers to his wife’s funeral. He had the following witty take on his own situation. (All the ellipses appeared in the original text.)
Eddie: …There is no way I can pay this man back…So what’ll he do? Kill me?…Maybe …If he kills me, he not only loses his money, it’ll probably cost him again for the flowers for my funeral. (Page 23)
I also liked the amusing way Eddie explained how he got into financial trouble.
Eddie: …I couldn’t go to a bank because they don’t let you put up heartache and pain as collateral…You know what collateral is, Arty?…You have to give them something to hold that’s worth eleven dollars…That’s for their interest…A Shylock doesn’t need collateral…His collateral is your desperation…So he gives you his money…And he’s got a clock. And when you get your money, the clock starts…And what it keeps time of is your promise…If you keep your promise, he turns off the clock…and if not, it keeps ticking…and after a while, your heart starts ticking louder than his clock…” (Page 22)
As with Brighton Beach Memoirs, Lost in Yonkers contained an emotional confrontation scene towards the end of the play. During an argument with Grandma, Bella angrily asserted that she envied her two deceased siblings. In the denouement from this exchange, Grandma reached a painful moment of self-realization.
Bella: I’m sorry, Momma…I didn’t mean to hurt you.
Grandma: Yes. You do…It’s my punishment for being alive…for not surviving my own children…Not dying before them is my sin…” (Page 113)
Grandma expressed quite a revealing statement here. Throughout the play she conducted herself as a rather unemotional person. Earlier she delivered the following thoughts on Eddie to his children: “Your father vants you to grow up, first let him grow up.” (Page 36)
While the comedic quips in Lost in Yonkers stood out the most, Mr. Simon added much more depth to the story than that would suggest. In spite of the tragedies and traumas affecting all of the characters’ lives, they all became better people by the end. It takes a very special playwright to fuse all these disparate elements into the same piece. It’s difficult to laugh at the playwright for that achievement.