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Theatre / Lost in Yonkers

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Lost in Yonkers is a Tony Award-winning 1991 play by Neil Simon.

The story is set in 1942, and the action follows Jay and Arty Kurnitz, brothers aged 15 and 13 respectively. Their father Eddie is a recent widower, his wife Evelyn having died three months earlier after a battle with cancer. If that weren't bad enough, Eddie ran up $9000 in debts in 1942 money to pay his wife's medical bills, and he's in debt to a loan shark.

Needing to make money and make it quick, Eddie comes up with a plan to be a traveling salesman selling scrap iron to the military, the war having created a sudden demand. He needs to find a place for the kids to stay, so he leaves them with his mother in Yonkers. Grandma Kurnitz is a mean, vicious old lady. In fact, she initially refuses to take Jay and Arty in, only relenting when the boys' Aunt Bella insists that they stay or she will leave. Aunt Bella is a 35-year-old woman who is very flighty and seems to have some sort of minor learning disability and cognitive impairment; she is relentlessly browbeaten and emotionally abused by her mother. Aunt Bella's quest for independence is a major theme. The situation is further disturbed by the sudden appearance of Uncle Louie, a jovial fellow who also happens to be a bagman for the mob.


The original play starred Mercedes Ruehl as Aunt Bella, Irene Worth as Grandma, and Kevin Spacey as Louie. In 1993 it was adapted into a film directed by Martha Coolidge, with Neil Simon adapting his own play for the screen. The film featured Ruehl and Worth reprising their roles, with Richard Dreyfuss appearing as Louie and David Strathairn playing Johnny, Bella's boyfriend.


  • Abusive Parents: Grandma was this. Louie tells a rueful anecdote about how Grandma once locked him in a closet for three hours for breaking a dish, and finally disowned him, after a third attempt to run away. She whacked her children with her cane; Jay attributes Bella's mild mental disability to this. Grandma is constantly mean and verbally abusive to poor Aunt Bella as well.
  • Armor-Piercing Response: Towards the end, when Grandma accuses Bella of being an unwell thief, Bella declares that all of her children are either sick or thieves, and that the two who died were the lucky ones. Grandma is destroyed by that response and shows true emotion for the first time in the entire play.
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  • Briefcase Full of Money: The black valise that Louie is constantly toting around and is very protective of—although the audience never actually sees the money.
  • Cloud Cuckoolander: Bella is a madcap free spirit. This is a coping mechanism to deal with emotional abuse from Grandma. Near the end Bella writes a postcard to Eddie saying "I just want to tell you that Arty and Jay are all right and I have good news for you except I don't have no more room. Love, Bella."
  • Death of a Child: Eventually it's revealed that the deaths of two children young, and especially her son Aaron, is what caused Grandma to shut herself off emotionally from the world and the rest of her family.
  • Grave-Marking Scene: Bella takes Jay and Arty to the graveyard to visit her father (died in 1906 before Bella was born), and two of her siblings that died in childhood. The boys are weirded out when Bella makes them wish happy birthday to her brother who died in 1908 at the age of eight. Bella says that Grandma, who thinks emotion is weakness, never comes.
  • Immigrant Patriotism: As Eddie is explaining to his sons why he has to go away, he starts talking about the war, and says "Let me tell you something. I love this country. Because they took in the Jews. They took in the Irish, the Italians, and everyone else."
  • Insistent Appellation: Jay's birth name is Yakob. Grandma insists on calling him only Yakob. Similarly, Arty is only "Arthur".
  • Lack of Empathy: Grandma regards emotion as a weakness and thinks the best thing for children is to make them learn to be "hard". She shows no sympathy or affection for anyone. She nearly turns away her grandchildren before Bella forces her to let them stay.
  • Men Don't Cry: Grandma tells her grandsons that "boys of ten shouldn't cry" and goes into a list of seemingly heart-wrenching circumstances which apparently did not move her, claiming to be "made of steel".
  • Naïve Newcomer: Jay being a little bit older than Arty means that he better remembers their past visits to Grandma, and knows more about the family history, which allows him to give Arty and the audience some exposition in the first scene about Bella, Louie, and Grandma.
  • Or Are You Just Happy to See Me?: Uncle Louie keeps a gun in his pocket. He says that the ladies think it's something else when they dance real close.
  • Shout-Out: After Louie's dramatic entrance, Arty says "He's incredible. It's like having a James Cagney movie in your own house."
  • Voiceover Letter: Occasionally Eddie's letters from the road are read in voicever, providing comic relief as Eddie the New York Jew struggles to deal with the culture shock of the American South.

Tropes unique to the film:

  • Adaptational Alternate Ending: The play ends with Bella having asserted herself to the extent that she tells Grandma she's going out with friends. The movie has that scene but also adds a further ending in which Bella actually moves away.
  • Adaptation Expansion:
    • The film gives more material to Uncle Louie, probably to give major star Richard Dreyfuss more to do.
    • The character of Johnny, theater usher and Bella's beau, isn't seen in the play. In the movie he is played by David Strathairn.
  • Feet-First Introduction: For two different characters.
    • First there's Bella's white shoes skipping down the sidewalk, establishing her as a free spirit.
    • Then there's Grandma's heavy clodhopper shoes, accompanied by the thump of a cane and ominous music, establishing her as scary.
  • Narrator: In the film Jay narrates much of the action.
  • Off-into-the-Distance Ending: Ends with Bella walking off down the street, as a Voiceover Letter reveals that she has left Grandma and Yonkers and gotten a job in Florida.
  • Secret Underground Passage: Louie reveals a tunnel that he and Bella dug from the basement to the surface outside, an escape tunnel to escape from Grandma. She found out about it and smacked Louie upside the head (but, strangely, didn't fill in the tunnel).
  • Shout-Out: Bella goes to see Now, Voyager.

Alternative Title(s): Lost In Yonkers