Lost in Yonkers

by Neil Simon

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The Play

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 930

The play takes place in the sparsely furnished living and dining rooms of Grandma Kurnitz’s apartment above Kurnitz’s Kandy Store in Yonkers, New York. A small kitchen is off to one side. Doors lead to two bedrooms, a bathroom, and a staircase going directly down to the store. Jay and Arty are waiting in the living room while their father talks to Grandma Kurnitz in her bedroom. The boys heartily dislike and fear their authoritarian grandmother. Jay remarks that there is something peculiar about each of Grandma’s children. Their father, Eddie, trembles in fear of Grandma. Bella, their mentally ill aunt, is “a little . . . closed for repairs” upstairs. When Aunt Gert visits Grandma, she cannot finish a sentence without gasping for breath. Uncle Louie has become a bagman for gangsters.

Bella arrives in a state of confusion. She went to the movies but, unable to find the theater she was looking for, went to another one and wants the boys to go with her next week, if “I can find the wrong theater again.” Eddie comes out of the bedroom and explains to his sons that he went in debt to a loan shark to pay hospital and doctor bills for their mother when she was dying of cancer. He owes the loan shark nine thousand dollars. Until the outbreak of World War II opened up new jobs, Eddie had no hope of repaying him. Now he can earn that much money in a year, traveling through the South and West and selling scrap iron, but only if Grandma takes care of the boys while he is away. As much as they hate the idea, the boys agree to stay with her. Grandma, however, rejects Eddie’s request, telling him he is too weak and needs to grow up and solve his own problems. People, she says sternly, must be hard as steel to survive in the world. Grandma does not relent until Bella asserts herself by threatening to go away and leave her mother all alone if she does not take in the boys.

The passage of time is indicated by stage blackouts, during which the voice of Eddie is heard reading letters to his sons. In one scene, Aunt Bella confides to the boys that while at the movie theater she met an usher who wants to marry her. Although he is also mentally ill, the couple plans to open a restaurant if Grandma will loan them five thousand dollars. In another scene, Uncle Louie sneaks into the house carrying a black bag. He warns the boys not to touch it. When the boys mention that two men have been driving by looking for him, Louie bribes each boy with five dollars to say nothing if anyone calls asking about him. Act 1 ends with Eddie’s voice-over: “Dear Boys. . . . The one thing that keeps me going is knowing you’re with my family. Thank God you’re in good hands. Love, Pop.”

Act 2 opens with Arty in bed with a fever. Grandma cooks some horrible-tasting German mustard soup. After forcing him to eat it, she orders Arty out of bed. Uncle Louie tells him that as a child in Germany, Grandma suffered greatly and is convinced that children must be trained to endure a harsh world stoically. Badly injured during a political riot, when a horse fell and crushed her foot, Grandma has been in pain every day and needs to walk with a cane, yet she refuses to take even so much as an aspirin. When they were growing up, if Louie or...

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his brother or sisters broke a dish or misbehaved in any way, they were locked in a closet for hours. When Grandma heard Gert talking in her sleep, Gert did not get supper for a week until she learned to sleep holding her breath. Now when Gert visits her mother, she gasps for air in the middle of every sentence.

After a dinner that Gert attends, Bella haltingly informs the family that she wants to marry her usher boyfriend and open a restaurant. When Louie finally understands that the usher is mentally ill, he asks if what her boyfriend really wants is her money. Bella insists that he wants more than her money. What could be more than money? Louie asks. “Me! He wants me! He wants to marry me!” she replies. Bella hopes to marry him and have his babies. She is certain they will live happier lives than she or her siblings. Bella pleads with her mother for help, but Grandma rises without a word, walks into her bedroom, and shuts the door behind her.

Bella leaves home for two days and returns crestfallen. In a powerful scene she tells her mother that she felt safe with her usher, knowing that because he was like her, he loved her and understood her. Although Louie gave her the five thousand dollars they needed from his black bag, her boyfriend was too timid to leave the protection of his parents, and Bella’s plans fell through. Now she and her mother must learn to deal with what has occurred.

Simon provides an upbeat ending. In the play’s closing scene, nine months have passed. Eddie has repaid his debts and returns to claim his children. Uncle Louie has enlisted in the army and is fighting the Japanese in the South Pacific. Bella informs her mother that she is going out with a new girlfriend; the girlfriend has a brother, and Bella will invite the two for dinner later in the week.

Dramatic Devices

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Simon wrote a well-made Broadway play nearly every year. In this play he uses a straightforward chronological narrative structure. Each scene flows from the preceding one and directly advances the action. At the start of the play, the exchanges between Jay and Arty introduce all the characters and establish their roles. When Bella and her mother appear onstage, they live up to the audience’s expectations. Bella grows in emotional depth as the play develops, but Grandma does not deviate from the horrific figure the boys depicted. The personalities of Louie and Gert are similarly prefigured in the boys’ conversation that opens the play.

Scene changes are well managed. The stage darkens and Eddie’s voice is heard reading letters to his children. References to the cities he has visited help establish the passage of time as he travels across the South earning money. Hints of possible heart problems build suspense concerning his children’s eventual fate. At the end of the first act, Eddie’s voice-over provides an ironic contrast with the reality the audience has just observed.

Simon portrays Grandma’s character more through what she fails to do than by her direct actions. Never does she supply parental warmth or provide emotional support for her children. In the play’s most powerful scene she wastes not a syllable or breath refusing Bella’s cry for help. She ignores her daughter completely. Rising slowly, she turns and silently limps to her room, quietly closing the door behind her.

Although some critics faulted Simon for depending on one-line gags, in fact most laughs are built on previously introduced material and enhance the central themes of the play. Arty’s reference to Louie’s information that, although Grandma is in constant pain, she will not even take an aspirin, provides a surefire laugh when he tells his brother, “I’m afraid of her Jay. A horse fell on her when she was a kid and she hasn’t taken an aspirin yet.”

Historical Context

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The United States Enters World War II During World War I, the United States did not enter the war until the final years, after Germans sank a number of American ships. The same was true for World War II. During the beginning years of the war, the United States remained officially neutral. Although President Roosevelt attempted to keep the United States out of the war as much as possible, he realized that ultimately this might not be possible. Martin Gilbert says in his A History of the Twentieth Century, Vol. 2, 1933-1951, ‘‘Roosevelt intimated that the concept of perpetual neutrality ... could not survive the conflicts that were arising across the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans.’’ As the war progressed, the United States, still officially neutral, began to provide a greater supply of arms and other aid to its international allies who were actively fighting the war against Germany and the Axis powers. After the devastating Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, the United States declared war on Japan. When Adolf Hitler, overconfident that the Japanese would defeat the United States, declared war on America, the United States was drawn inexorably into the war against the two major Axis powers.

Battle of Guadalcanal At the end of the play, Jay and Arty talk about their uncle Louie, who has enlisted in the military and gone to fight in World War II in an effort to get away from the gangsters who have been chasing him. As Arty notes, ‘‘He's probably the richest guy on Guadalcanal.’’ Arty is referring to the Battle of Guadalcanal, which took place from August 1942 to February 1943. The battle featured some of the war's most brutal fighting. It was also one of the most one-sided Allied victories. By the battle's end, casualties included approximately 21,000 Japanese soldiers and approximately 3,000 American and Australian soldiers.

The Persian Gulf War However, this one-sided fight paled in comparison to the lopsided fighting in the Persian Gulf War, which is also commonly referred to as the Gulf War. This war began on August 2, 1990, when Saddam Hussein sent his Iraqi forces into Kuwait. The world community suspected that Hussein was trying to acquire Kuwait's vast oil reserves. The United Nations responded with economic sanctions, but Hussein refused to withdraw. On August 6, the United States and its allies, including other Middle Eastern nations, began to occupy nearby Saudi Arabia, to prevent an attack on the Saudi oil supply. This combined military buildup was known as Operation Desert Shield. On November 29, the United Nations Security Council gave Hussein a withdrawal deadline of January 15, 1991. Hussein ignored the deadline, and on January 18, 1991, the United States and its allies began Operation Desert Storm. This operation, a sustained aerial assault on Iraq, neutralized Iraq's military forces, government and military installations, transportation and communication networks, and oil refineries. On February 24, the Allies launched Operation Desert Sabre, a ground assault from Saudi Arabia into Kuwait and southern Iraq that faced relatively little resistance. On February 28, President George Bush called a cease-fire.

Literary Style

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Setting The play depends heavily upon its World War II setting. The whole premise of the play, that Eddie is able to find work that will get him out of his debt to the loan shark, would not work as well if it were set during peacetime. Eddie says, "I hate this war, and God forgive me for saying this, but it's going to save my life.... There are jobs I can get now that I could never get before.'' In addition, the war setting provides a believable escape for Uncle Louie at the end of the play when he enlists in the military to escape the mob. As Arty remarks, "You know who I miss? Uncle Louie.... I'm glad those two guys never caught him.’’ Says Jay, ‘‘No, but maybe the Japs will.’’ The war also provides a violent backdrop for the volatile emotions that are displayed in the play. In a similar way, the sweltering heat of Yonkers, at least in the beginning of the play, underscores the negative feelings that Jay and Arty associate with their grandma Kurnitz. In fact, when Arty and Jay are talking about their aunt Bella, after going into a lengthy dialogue about why they hate coming to their grandma's house, Arty says that Bella is ‘‘Nicer than 'hot house' Grandma.’’

Dialogue Dialogue plays an important part in any play, since most of the information is communicated to the audience through dialogue. Unlike short stories and novels, which have the ability to let the reader inside the characters' thoughts, most plays must dramatize thoughts and feelings through dialogue and actions. In Lost in Yonkers, the style of dialogue is particularly important. Grandma Kurnitz has the most distinctive dialogue. Her German accent, which makes her seem even tougher, separates her from the rest of the characters. Grandma Kurnitz's accent and stilted speech are apparent from her first lines in the play. When she meets Arty, she asks, "Diss iss the little one?'' As she launches into her first long speech, her accent gets even thicker: ‘‘So now Grandma vill tell you vy she doesn' t tink you should live vit her.’’ The fact that Simon makes Grandma Kurnitz's accent German is significant, given the fact that the Germans were one of America's strongest enemies during the war. This helps to make her seem even more ruthless. Grandma Kurnitz's style of speech is not the only distinctive dialogue in the play. Uncle Louie, the mob henchman, speaks in a tough, fast style that reflects his gangster status and knowledge of street life. When he is discussing Eddie's debt problem with the loan sharks, Louie says, ‘‘You think I don't know what's going on? The sharks are puttin' the bite on him, right? He shoulda come to me. There's lotsa ways of borrowin' money. Your pop don't unnerstand that.’’

Voice-Over With rare exception, each scene after Eddie leaves begins with a letter from Eddie to Arty and Jay or to his mother. These letters help to illuminate Eddie's experiences working down South, but they also underscore the conflicts that are taking place in each scene. For example, in the first scene of the second act, a sick Eddie notes in his letter, which is communicated to the audience in voice-over: ‘‘I remember when I was a boy, if I got sick, my mother used to give me the worst tasting German mustard soup. God, how I hated it.’’ This voice-over helps to establish several things: First, Eddie is sick from pushing himself too hard to pay off his debt and survive; second, Eddie had no choice but to drink the mustard soup as a kid, just as Arty has no choice in the scene when Grandma Kurnitz forces him to drink the soup. In fact, this scene is about the ways in which Grandma Kurnitz taught her children to survive a tough world. By having Eddie introduce the soup, which is Grandma Kurnitz's way of beating a sickness quickly, it sets the tone for the rest of the scene. This pattern is repeated throughout the many other letters and corresponding voice-overs.

Compare and Contrast

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Early 1940s: The United States enters World War II after a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

1991: The United States leads the Gulf War against Iraq after Saddam Hussein occupies the neighboring country of Kuwait.

Today: The United States leads a massive international war on terrorism following attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., in 2001.

Early 1940s: United States military forces experience harsh resistance from Axis forces in both European and Pacific arenas. However, with the help of other Allied forces, they begin to turn the tide of the war.

1991: United States military forces, under the command of President George Bush, experience little resistance from Iraqi forces. However, Saddam Hussein launches attacks against neighboring nations such as Israel, incurring the wrath of other nations in the Middle East.

Today: When United States President George W. Bush announces his intentions to attack Iraq, claiming that the country is harboring weapons of mass destruction, Israel is one of Bush's strongest supporters. However, many other nations in the Middle East, as well as several American allies around the world, are reluctant to give full support to Bush's plan.

Early 1940s: Nazi Germany continues its systematic annihilation of most of the European Jewish population. Those Jews who can escape flee to other countries in Europe and abroad. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States government authorizes the internment of more than one hundred thousand Japanese Americans in detention camps.

1991: Following the Gulf War, some Iraqis relocate to other countries, including the United States, in an attempt to escape Saddam Hussein's repressive regime.

Today: Following the terrorist attacks in the United States, which are orchestrated by exiled Saudi millionaire Osama bin Laden, many American citizens of Middle Eastern descent are exposed to racial profiling and aggression.

Media Adaptations

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Lost in Yonkers was adapted as a film by Columbia Pictures in 1993. The film, directed by Martha Coolidge, features Richard Dreyfuss as Uncle Louie, Mercedes Ruehl as Aunt Bella, and Irene Worth as Grandma Kurnitz. It is available on VHS and DVD from Columbia/Tristar Home Video.

Lost in Yonkers was also produced as an audio stage recording in 2002 by L.A. Theatre Works. The audio recording is available in both cassette and CD form. Both feature the voices of Dan Castellanetta as Uncle Louie, Gia Carides as Aunt Gert, Roxanne Hart as Aunt Bella, and Barbara Bain as Grandma Kurnitz.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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SOURCES Bryer, Jackson R., "An Interview with Neil Simon (1994),'' in Neil Simon: A Casebook, edited by Gary Konas, Garland, 1997, pp. 217-32.

Gainor, J. Ellen, ‘‘Neil Simon,’’ in American Writers, Supplement IV, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1996, pp. 573-94.

Gilbert, Martin, A History of the Twentieth Century, Vol. 2, 1933-1951, Post Road Press, 1998, p. 242.

Henry, William A., III, "Laughter on the Brink of Tears,’’ in Time, Vol. 137, Issue 9, March 4, 1991, p. 70.

Kanfer, Stefan, ‘‘Looking Backward,’’ in the New Leader, Vol. 74, No. 3, February 11-25, 1991, pp. 22-23.

Konas, Gary, "Introduction," in Neil Simon: A Casebook, edited by Gary Konas, Garland, 1997, pp. 1-9.

Koprince, Susan, ‘‘Neil Simon,’’ in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 266, Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, Fourth Series, edited by Christopher J. Wheatley, Gale, 2002, pp. 269-87.

Kramer, Mimi, ‘‘Ill-Apportioned Parts,’’ in the New Yorker, Vol. 67, No. 3, March 11, 1991, pp. 75-77.

Kroll, J., ‘‘Going Bonkers in Yonkers,’’ in Newsweek, Vol. 117, Issue 9, March 4, 1991, p. 60.

Mandl, Bette, ‘‘Beyond Laughter and Forgetting: Echoes of the Holocaust in Neil Simon's Lost in Yonkers,’’ in Neil Simon: A Casebook, edited by Gary Konas, Garland, 1997, pp. 69-77.

Richards, David, "The Last of the Red Hot Lovers,'' in the New York Times Magazine, February 17, 1991, pp. 30-32, 36, 57, 64.

Simon, Neil, Lost in Yonkers, Random House, 1991.

Torrens, James S., ‘‘Absent and Lost, Seasonal High Points,’’ in America, Vol. 164, No. 17, May 4, 1991, pp. 496-97.

Weales, Gerald, ‘‘Downstairs, Upstairs,’’ in Commonweal, Vol. 118, Issue 9, May 3, 1991, p. 293.

FURTHER READING Bloom, Harold, ed., Neil Simon, Bloom's Major Dramatists series, Chelsea House Publishers, 2001. This book contains criticism from many scholars, as well as a critical biography, a chronology of Simon's life, and an introductory essay by Bloom. The book examines many of Simon's works, including Lost in Yonkers.

Frank, Richard B., Guadalcanal: The Definitive Account of the Landmark Battle, Penguin USA, 1992. Guadalcanal is the only major World War II battle mentioned in Lost in Yonkers. However, it was a very important battle, as this book shows. The book draws on both American and Japanese declassified documents to give a complete history of the battle.

Johnson, Robert K., Neil Simon, Twayne Publishers, 1983. This critical biography of Simon gives a good overview of the beginning of Simon's life and career. Although it was written before the publication of Lost in Yonkers, it contains helpful information about many of Simon's most popular plays.

Konas, Gary, ed., Neil Simon: A Casebook, Garland, 1997. This collection of critical essays and interviews explores the recurring themes in Simon's work, the autobiographical qualities of many of his plays, and Simon's status as a contemporary playwright.


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Sources for Further Study

Konas, Gary, ed. Neil Simon: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1997.

Kramer, Mimi. “Ill Apportioned Parts.” The New Yorker 67 (March 11, 1991): 75-77.

Lipton, James. “Neil Simon.” In Playwrights at Work: Paris Review, edited by George Plimpton. New York: The Modern Library, 2000.

Richards, David. “The Last of the Red Hot Playwrights.” New York Times Magazine, February 17, 1991, 30-36, 57, 64.

Simon, Neil. The Play Goes On: A Memoir. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999.




Critical Essays