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 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...
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