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Lost in Yonkers: Marsha Mason to make Neil Simon magic on Hartford Stage

The four-time Oscar nominee says Simon's work continues to resonate

“Lost in Yonkers,” which will be co-directed by Marsha Mason and Hartford Stage Artistic Producer Rachel Alderman, will run April 7 through May 1, 2022. Mason also stars. 

“Lost in Yonkers,” which will be co-directed by Marsha Mason and Hartford Stage Artistic Producer Rachel Alderman, will run April 7 through May 1, 2022. Mason also stars. 

Courtesy Hartford Stage

It’s hard to think of Marsha Mason without thinking about Neil Simon — and even harder to imagine someone who understands the late playwright’s work more. 

As she prepares to co-direct and star in Simon’s Pulitzer Prize winning “Lost in Yonkers” in Hartford next month, Mason, who was married to Simon for a decade, mused on why his work continues to resonate and be rediscovered by every generation.

“At the heart of it, he writes from a place that is mostly autobiographical and with an extraordinary gift of humor. Sometimes it’s obvious humor, sometimes it is more character humor,” she said.

“Neil’s gift was that he was able to mine his own pain for comedy. I really believe all comedy comes from a place of pain. And I think he believed that as well,” Mason said. 

Simon was trained early on in comedy by the “greats,” Mason said, including Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner and the Red Skelton Show. 

Winner of the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play, “Lost in Yonkers” is a funny and touching play. After the death of their mother, two young brothers are sent to stay with their formidable grandmother for the longest ten months of their lives. Grandmother Kurnitz is a one-woman German front—a refugee and a widow who has steeled her heart against the world. Her coldness and intolerance have crippled her own children. The boys must contend with their strong-willed grandmother, their aunt and her secret romance, and their uncle, a small-time hoodlum, in this strange new world called Yonkers.

Mason, who lives in Litchfield County, CT plays the role of Grandmother Kurnitz and serves as co-director. She said she was eager to get back on stage and bring Simon’s “Lost in Yonkers” to life. 

“It’s been three and a half years since I’ve done a play. It’s hard. You want to keep your machine well-oiled. It’s been difficult,” she said.

“We are just thrilled to be working on this material. It is so texted and layered, and funny, while heartbreaking. It has all the wonderful qualities we look for in a play,” Mason said. 

Mason has been nominated four times for an Oscar and earned Golden Globes and an Emmy award for her recurring role on the television sitcom “Frasier.” 

Serving as both actor and co-director for “Lost in Yonkers,” Mason said she finds directing “exciting and enthralling,” especially since she is directing with an actor’s eye.

“I love actors and I understand them, I think. I find it very rewarding,” she said. 

To that end, Mason said she’s found that working with directors who have acted has been beneficial as they know the language.

While she said she’s worked with wonderful directors who didn’t have acting experience, in her view, Mason said directors who have not acted could improve their craft by taking acting classes to “learn the vocabulary.”
The communication between actors and directors is critical for success, according to Mason.

“That’s why you often see actors with the same directors over and over again. It’s a kind of language,” she said. 

With experience in film, television, and live theater, Mason said there are advantages to all of those mediums.

“What I love about working on a film, if it is really good — it is there forever. It’s wonderful,” she said.

But there’s something to be said for the instant gratification delivered by live performances, according to Mason, which is delayed a bit working on a film.

“On the other hand, dealing with a live audience is also thrilling. To see their reaction — it’s an immediate gratification, or pain,” she said, laughing.

“Every performance is a little different and it does require more work in a way. It’s more concentrated time, and the commitment is a bit bigger in terms of theater. You need to sustain your physical and emotional energy a bit longer,” she said. 

Out of the many roles she’s played, Mason credits the lead role in the Neil Simon-penned “Only When I Laugh,” based on his play “The Gingerbread Lady,” as “a personal favorite of mine.”

Another was in “The Cheap Detective,” a mystery/comedy film also written by Simon. Mason said she fought for the part after Lily Tomlin, originally slated to play it, had a scheduling conflict.

“It happened by accident. I asked Neil if I could audition. He didn’t think originally think I was right for it,” she said, laughing.

“It was ultimately a good performance and he approved. I loved it,” Mason said. 

Marsha Mason moved permanently to Litchfield County to 2015 after having visited friends in Connecticut many times — commuting to New York City as she needs to.

“I love it. I love nature. I love to see all the animals roam around. The rural aspect is so relaxing and beautiful,” she said.

Another plus to living in Connecticut is the robust arts community — she only has to commute an hour or so to work on “Lost in Yonkers.”
    
“Lost in Yonkers,” which will be co-directed by Hartford Stage Artistic Producer Rachel Alderman, will run April 7 through May 1, 2022.

Ticket are $30-$100 with discounts for students and groups. Tickets can be purchased by visiting HartfordStage.org, by calling (860) 527-5151, or by visiting the Hartford Stage Box Office at 50 Church Street, Hartford, CT from noon to 5pm.

To keep actors, audiences, and staff safe, Hartford Stage requires masks to be worn throughout the performance, plus proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test result upon entry. For more details, please visit hartfordstage.org/covid-19.