A different take on ‘coming of age'

Simon's "Lost in Yonkers' at Plays & Players

3 minute read
Simon: Lost and found.
Simon: Lost and found.
What is it about female coming-of-age stories that turns me off these days, notwithstanding the fact that I came of age myself just a few years ago?

Most such narratives I come across, in print and on TV alike, emphasize the importance of "acceptance" and finding satisfying romantic relationships, as if coming to terms with reality is a matter of learning to love one's body and going for the nice guy. Few address the age-old and perhaps more relevant matter of learning how to accept, and even love, your mother— a thorny challenge for most young women.

I certainly didn't expect to find such a story from the feel-good comedy writer Neil Simon, even if his Lost in Yonkers did win a Pulitzer Prize. But with Angela Carolfi in a breathtaking performance as Bella, the mentally unstable yet charming female star, and Helen McCrane's equally superb portrayal of her tired and nasty mother, the Plays & Players production expertly navigates the journey of one young woman from denial and anger to forgiveness and healing.

The play explores an entire family's coming of age, in fact. After their mother's death, two young boys, Jay and Artie (Jordan B. Mottram and Gavin Becker in an innocently whimsical relationship out of the mid-19th-Century), are left with their intimidating grandmother in a suburban New York apartment full of dysfunctional relatives while their father travels the country selling scrap metal in order to pay off the debt accrued from his late wife's cancer treatment.

Delinquent uncle

Over the course of the play, the two boys learn how to challenge their grandmother's harsh treatment, with the help of their delinquent uncle, Louis, a Bogart-like figure who has turned to a life of crime. While the boys develop strengths to complement the love they learned from their two adoring parents, Grandmother's other kids begin to question the love, or lack thereof, within their own family.

The boys' arrival is perhaps most influential on Bella, their excitable and mentally challenged 35-year old aunt, who still lives in her mother's tiny apartment. With two boys to fuss over, and a local usher expressing interest in marriage, Bella begins to crave love and family and to resent her mother's lack of attention.

Grandmother's coldness, we learn (via Helen McCrane's superb accent) springs from a rough childhood in Germany, during which she concluded that the only important thing is "to live." Love and sensitivity, she contends, can only lead to vulnerability and, consequently, defeat.

Growth without perfection

Bella finally challenges her mother's hard-bitten philosophy in several moving scenes, so that the family members must confront their past and learn to incorporate love into their lives, while at the same time incorporating the older generation's virtues, like strength and survival. The result of this process isn't perfection; it's growth.

The strong cast and intimate setting of Plays & Players' 99-year-old theater creates the perfect boiler room for the challenging yet ultimately redemptive confrontations between the grandmother and the next generation. Simon's useful message in Lost in Yonkers is that "coming of age" means more than growing up— that true maturity comes from confronting an older generation's traditions and carving a new, inspired path.♦

To read a response, click here.

What, When, Where

Lost in Yonkers. By Neil Simon; Betty Chomentowski directed. Plays & Players production through June 19, 2011 at Plays & Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey Pl. (215) 735-0630 or

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation