Doing Hard Time in `Yonkers' Neil Simon Mixes Angst with Laughs in a Study of Character

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Lost in Yonkers Play by Neil Simon. Directed by Gene Saks. Starring Irene Wirth, Mercedes Ruehl, Mark Blum.

AUDIENCES leave new musicals humming the hit songs. In Neil Simon's latest play, "Lost in Yonkers," which premiered here and will soon begin its Broadway tryout performances, the audience leaves quoting the best lines.

The guy behind us said to his date: "I loved the line about Aunt Belle, something about `She's a little closed for repairs.' That'll be all around the office tomorrow."

The line I liked was about Aunt Belle, who can't find her way home, and is really in her lovable, slightly fragmented way, the star of the show: "She needs to wear a compass."

Belle is among the family casualties in what appears to be one of Mr. Simon's semi-autobiographical plays, but few clues are given. His autobiographical trilogy, "Brighton Beach Memoirs," "Broadway Bound" and the Tony award-winning "Biloxi Blues," that opened between l983 and l986, marked a more serious turn for Simon. Like filmmaker Woody Allen earlier, Simon began moving away from early comedies and veering toward drama.

"Lost in Yonkers" follows the same road. There are still some very funny lines in the play. But there are some scenes of family tragedy that may remind you more of Eugene O'Neill than Neil Simon.

The play is set in 1942 in the Hudson River city of Yonkers, N.Y., a place of perpetually dubious charm. "Yonkers" takes place in one set - a two- bedroom apartment over Kurnitz's Kandy Store. The Victorian building set by Santo Loquasto, who also did the period costumes, has the remote, haunting look of an Edward Hopper painting.

The play starts slowly, in fact it drags with exposition, as we learn that salesman Eddie Kurnitz (Mark Blum), a recent widower, is forced to leave his two young sons with their Grandmother Kurnitz for a year while he sells scrap steel in the South to pay off a $9,000 debt. The boys, Jay and Arty (winningly played by Jamie Marsh and Danny Gerard), are looking at a year of doing hard time in Yonkers.

Suddenly, like a bolt of goofy lightning, Aunt Belle enters and lights everything up. "I couldn't go to the theater I looked for, so I went to the one I found," she explains to the family.

When we first see her, Belle wears a big ruffled pinafore like those in fashion for children, and she moves like a gawky girl. But she is a grown woman, full of love which she lavishes on her bizarre family. …