The central focus of the play is Neil Simon’s exploration of dysfunctional family dynamics. No one is inherently evil, and everyone is a victim. Each character, except for the two boys, has been disabled by childhood traumas. Simon insists that the play is not autobiographical. Although the two boys resemble Simon’s depiction of himself and his brother in his semiautobiographical trilogy, Brighton Beach Memoirs (pr. 1982, pb. 1984), Biloxi Blues (pr. 1984, pb. 1986), and Broadway Bound (pr. 1986, pb. 1987), neither of Simon’s grandmothers resembled Grandma Kurnitz. Nevertheless, Simon’s own family was dysfunctional. His parents quarreled constantly. Relations between Simon and his mother were frequently tense. Several times his father abandoned the family for long stretches, forcing his mother to move in with relatives and work as a salesclerk at department stores. The scenes between Grandma and Bella are fictional, yet the intense emotional temperature of their exchanges, and Simon’s understanding of Bella’s desperate longing for warmth and affection, clearly reflect Simon’s own childhood needs and experience.
Lost in Yonkers continues Simon’s use of American Jewish themes begun in his Brighton Beach trilogy. His earlier successful comedies used characters whose attitudes and cadences were derived from New York Jewish humor, but no one was identified as Jewish. In this play everyone is explicitly Jewish. Simon uses comedy to soften his exploration of the darker aspects of immigrant Jewish experiences in America.
Specific reference to the Holocaust during the play would be anachronistic. In 1942 the Kurnitzes surely knew of the Nazi persecution of Jews, but they could not yet have been fully aware of the horrors occurring in Europe. Contemporary audiences do know of them, and that knowledge intensifies the effect of the play’s German references. When Jay speculates about the possibility of recovering their father’s inheritance from an uncle in Poland, Arty responds, “You think the Germans would let some Jew in Poland send nine thousand dollars to some Jew in Alabama?” The audience laughs, but their awareness of the Holocaust adds a darker edge to the humor. When Arty complains about his treatment by Grandma, she informs him that if he were a boy growing up in Germany he would already be dead. Grandma is presented as a victim of German oppression, but she is also a victimizer. Her German accent, and her harsh treatment of her family, make her Nazi-like.
Everybody in the play is trying hard to survive, each in his or her own way. Grandma Kurnitz is the character in the play that influences all of the other characters and forces them to adopt their survival tactics. When Grandma Kurnitz lost two of her children, she closed off the rest of her family emotionally—her way of coping with the loss and surviving. This emotional restriction, as well as Grandma Kurnitz's harsh ways, is intended to toughen up her children so that they will learn how to survive. Her children have adapted to Grandma Kurnitz's tough guidance in various ways. For Eddie, survival equates to hard, backbreaking work. He has done what he feels is the right thing by going into debt to ease his wife's hospital stay. Now, he feels that the only way to make up this debt is to work as hard as possible, sacrificing his own health, if necessary, to make sure that his boys survive. The boys see how hard their father is pushing himself, through his letters. One letter says, "Dear Boys...Sorry I haven't kept up my letter writing. The truth is, I was in the hospital a few days. Nothing serious. The doctor said it was just exhaustion.''
For Louie, survival means engaging in lucrative, illegal work that is very dangerous. Louie is constantly on the run because this kind of work has gotten him in trouble...
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