When I started work on Neil Simon’s comedy-drama Lost in Yonkers, I already knew the tough, stubborn and unfailingly practical immigrant generation embodied by the steely and comically terrifying character of Grandma Kurnitz. Personal parallels are a good thing when you’re about to devote six months of your life to a project and when, as a director, you need insights to guide your cast.
I’m a Jewish American who is the grandson of poor European immigrants. I knew the old men playing cards after dinner around Mom’s paisley Formica kitchen table, joking in Yiddish slang and arguing politics. I knew the women taking their coffee on plastic-protected, lime-green living room furniture while discussing the problems of everyone not present. I knew cousins who ate foods I could barely stand to look at (gefilte fish, anyone?).
Then a funny thing happened on the way to opening night. I discovered even stronger connections to the family at the heart of Yonkers. After a visit with my mother, who at 88 is still the perpetually mothering matriarch of our little family shrub, I learned about a side of the family I never knew that well: my father’s side. My father had passed away when I was 10. Neil Simon’s middle generation in Yonkers, I came to see, could have been a template for my father’s family.
My paternal grandparents came over with no money and endured much hardship before and after their arrival. Two of their children contracted scarlet fever: one died and one was left with disabilities. In the play, Grandma Kurnitz lost two of her children in their youth; another, Bella, suffered scarlet fever, which left her with permanent developmental disabilities. Grandma Kurnitz is sour and unsympathetic. My grandmother never turned away from her surviving children.
But Simon’s picture of the four radically different adult children mirrors my father and his three surviving siblings to an astonishing degree.
Bella, 33 going on 11, is shockingly similar to my Aunt Sarah, a woman with disabilities who lived her entire life at home and under the watchful eyes of her mother. Simon’s Aunt Gert, frail and sickly, was my Aunt Betty, kind but delicate and destined to die young. Simon’s Uncle Louis is the black sheep of the family, the survivor at any cost, breaking the rules, talking tough and operating under the law. My Uncle Sam, if less overtly criminal, was always scheming, dealing and needing someone to help him out of jams. That lifeline was my father, Ben, the reliable son, who, like Eddie in the play, lived for his family and always tried to do the right thing.
In the play’s young protagonists, Arty and Jay, who use humor and sarcasm to cope with family drama all around them, some say there’s more than a passing resemblance to a boy named Brian. Through elementary school, he spent a lot of time in the principal’s office for making jokes and wisecracks. He later turned to theater.
Brian Rabinowitz lives in Oak Park resident and is the father of three. An actor, teacher and corporate trainer, he’s also the director of Village Players’ production of ‘Lost in Yonkers,’ which runs through Feb. 21. For details, call 866-764-1010 or go to www.village-players.org.