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Lost in Yonkers

There’s a sitcom phoniness to this Neil Simon tragicomedy about a slow-witted woman, Bella (Mercedes Ruehl), who lives lovelessly with her German immigrant mother, Grandma Kurnitz (Irene Worth), above the old tyrant’s candy store in Yonkers, New York, circa 1942. Though Bella is “closed for repairs,” according to her wisecracking nephews, Jay (Brad Stoll) and Arty (Mike Damus), she’s awfully glib and knowing about her child-woman psyche for someone without therapy or access to Oprah and Phil.

The play inexplicably won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1991, when John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation was infinitely more deserving. In the film version, with Ruehl and Worth repeating their Tony-winning roles, Simon intensifies the barrage of belly laughs and bathos. Director Martha Coolidge, whose Rambling Rose was a model of graceful literary adaptation, seems at a loss with the crass material. Things begin well; cinematographer Johnny Jensen sets up the candy store as a sweet enticement for Jay and Arty to stay with their grandma for a few months while their widowed father (Jack Laufer) goes off on a job.

But Coolidge can’t do a thing about Simon’s damnably insistent comic rhythms. Ruehl and Worth have played these roles for so long in the theater that their inflections seem set in stone. They’re not lazy, just stuck. Richard Dreyfuss as Uncle Louie — Bella’s gangster brother — has no excuse. He’s new to the cast, replacing Kevin Spacey, who had a subtly dangerous charm onstage. Dreyfuss brings his “heh-heh-heh” laugh and his usual bag of grating mannerisms. The two boys, following Simon’s usual mode with kids, schmooze like old vaudevillians.

Coolidge can’t jar the actors into dropping their theatrical guard and springing surprises. It’s quite possible Simon wouldn’t want her to. But that “Why fix a hit?” philosophy has resulted in airless, robotic film versions of even Simon’s better plays (Chapter Two, Brighton Beach Memoirs). The camera quickly exposes the manipulative packaging of Yonkers. No sooner does Simon uncover an emotional wound than he’s treating it with a gob of humor or sentiment. Like Bella, he’s begging to be loved. Not this time.

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