Climaxes are written to be dramatic, but director Keith Baker ekes extra intensity from a “Lost in Yonkers” sequence in which Bella, age 35 but rendered a perpetual child by scarlet fever contracted in infancy, convenes her mother, siblings, and nephews to reveal seismic news in the sweet and solid production of Neil Simon’s 1990 play at the Bristol Riverside Theater.
Simon takes his time getting to the meat of his Pulitzer Prize winning play’s matter. He seems compelled to exhaust a rash of comic material and subplots before he zooms in on Bella and her aching need to be a responsible adult with a husband, home, and children.
Once he does that, “Lost in Yonkers” gains pathos and poignancy that propels Bella (Eleanor Handley) from an amusing figure who frequently passes her house while returning to it, forgets stories she’s telling in midstream, and wonders why her mother scolds when she gives four instead of two scoops of ice cream to customers in their candy store, to an unfulfilled middle-aged woman whose deep and sincere yearnings touch our hearts. It is affecting because Bella is fragile being and states her case in a way that is at once sad, determined, believable, and heartfelt.
Handley rivets the audience as her Bella tries to get her assembled family to understand her desires and, later, confronts her formidable mother (Joy Franz) while explaining the monumental emptiness she feels. Bella’s malady keeps her from comprehending she is not fit to live the dreams she so fervently wants to realize.
Simon sets Bella’s tale in a serious comedy about the Kurnitz family, all of whom seem unable to lead conventional lives, a trait they all blame on their mother who was strict to the point of stanching all humor, joy, spirit, or affection. Grandma Kurnitz endured a painful childhood in Germany and now deems it less important to coddle her children than to make them tough and infuse them with the will to live at all costs. She refers to herself as “steel.”
“Lost in Yonkers” is set in 1942 when Grandma’s recently widowed son, Eddie (Bruce Graham), asks his mother if she will mind his two sons so he can take a war-related job that requires travel and allows him to settle his late wife’s hospital debts. The boys (David Nate Goldman and Kyle Klein II) spend 10 months around a family they barely know: their grandmother, Bella, an uncle who is a mob bagman (Danny Vaccaro), and an aunt who aspirates while trying to speak (Karen Peakes).
For his first act, Simon gives the impression he aims to show the quirks of a family that has deep functional problems and its impression on the boys. Bella is just one among the boys’ unusual relatives.
A lot goes on, and Baker keeps the Bristol production flowing evenly and entertainingly while keeping everyone natural within his or her eccentricity. The boys take center stage, and the unrelenting sternness of the grandmother is established.
Yet matters tighten when the play becomes Bella’s. It is then that taut amusement turns to an arresting portrait Handley foreshadows and fulfills. The only grating passage comes right before Bella’s revelation, an annoying sequence that involves whether and where people will sit. It may mirror something that goes at family gatherings, but I prayed for its end.
Handley demonstrates Bella’s mental lapses, and her warmth, from her entrance. She employs a realistic facial tic and effective fluttery motions, and her effusive excitement at having the boys for company is genuine and endearing.
Franz relaxes Grandma’s iron gaze and rigid posture in telling ways that show how wily Grandma is. She maintains enough steeliness to make it effective when Grandma’s human side is seen.
Goldman is an excellent young actor who gives the older brother a lot of texture and who animates and anchors many of his scenes. Klein is brasher and more given to selling lines, but he was impressive, especially given his age, 14.
Bruce Graham — known to many as a playwright — is also a fine actor, nuanced, and appropriately energizing. He plays Eddie’s quietness while conveying his urgency and galvanizes the early scenes. Vaccaro is crisp as Louie, combining class with the ways of the street while trying to teach his nephews some ropes. And Peakes is perfect as the humanly astute aunt, Gert, getting even her speech impediment down pat.
Jason Simm’s paneled, well-furnished set is redolent with 1940s atmosphere and old-world style, and Linda B. Stockton costumes the woman in dresses and bobby socks to also help capture Simon’s recently lost era.
Lost in Yonkers, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, Pennsylvania. Through Sunday, November 30, Wednesday and Thursday, 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m., Wednesday and Saturday, 2 p.m., and Sunday, 3 p.m. Sunday. $36 to $46. 215-785-0100 or www.brtstage.org.