Neil Simon’s play Lost in Yonkers (1991) asks one of life’s universal questions: Why is my family so crazy?
Simon is an accessible, sentimental and popular playwright. And Very Little Theatre wrings all the sentimentality it can from a strong and winning production.
Set in 1942, Lost in Yonkers tells the story of Eddie and his family. Eddie (Paul Rhoden) has gone into debt covering his recently deceased wife’s medical costs.
With the outbreak of war, Eddie finds a lucrative job in scrap metal, taking him on the road. He turns to his stern and overbearing Jewish-immigrant mother to take in his two teenage sons.
As Eddie, Rhoden deftly captures the new American male at mid-century, fumbling with grief and familial responsibilities at a time when gender identities were just beginning to soften.
Central to the play are teenaged brothers Jay and Arty, portrayed here by young actors Aaron Conover and Cash McAllister. The duo has great comic timing and relentless energy.
As the fearsome matriarch Grandma, Rebecca Nachison steals every scene with quiet menace, the tap-tap-tap of her cane signaling dread.
Eddie’s sister, Bella (Hailey Henderson), contracted scarlet fever as an infant. She is developmentally challenged in a time when little was understood of such things. At 31, Bella still lives under her mother’s oppressive thumb, but she arguably shows more growth than any character in the story. Henderson delivers many comic high points alongside scenes of real emotional impact.
Rounding out the cast is Mike Hawkins as Uncle Louie, a fast-talking wise guy with mob ties. Hawkins could easily turn Louie into a caricature of the American mobster, but he’s immensely likeable and laugh-out-loud funny — a crook with a heart of gold — and you understand why Jay and Arty look up to him.
VLT’s production of Lost in Yonkers is a thoroughly charming and entertaining examination of the power of family. As we move into the holidays, you may find yourself remembering Bella’s line: “Big families are important when you have trouble in your life.”
Lost in Yonkers runs now through Oct. 24 at Very Little Theatre; $12-$18, tickets at vlt.com or 344-7751.