Lost in Yonkers is the play that capped a nearly decade-long career reassessment and transformation that saw Neil Simon enter the 1990’s attaining recognition as one of America’s major playwrights of the latter 20th century, rather than the reputation as merely a joke machine with which he entered the 1980’s. After striking out on his ambition to become a playwright following his initiation into the comedy writing business as one of the legendary members of the teams responsible for writing the various TV series of Sid Caesar (which also include at one time or another Woody Allen, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner) Simon enjoyed a string of hit Broadway comedies throughout the 1960’s. Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, Sweet Charity, Plaza Suite and his musical adaptation of the Oscar-winning film The Apartment never failed to play to packed houses.
By the end of the 1970’s, he was still producing one hit after another that usually went onto become popular films, but with Woody Allen suddenly being seen as serious director, Carl Reiner as one of the most powerful figures in television and Mel Brooks being hailed as comedy genius, by the 1980’s Simon was starting look like he was coasting at best. His harshest critics took things a step further by accusing him of recycling the same ideas with slightly different jokes. Nobody was saying he wasn’t funny, but many were suggesting that’s all he was.
The process of turning this assessment of his career work around began by looking to write about something that really mattered to him. The result was his trilogy of “B” plays: Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound which draw strongly upon the autobiographic facts of his life tracing the development for being a young Jewish boy in New York through the culture shock of basic training in Mississippi and finally ambitious writer bound for Broadway. The trilogy was revealed a new depth of character for Simon’s playwriting skills in which the punch lines became subordinate to the set-up. Not even the Tony Award for Best Play for Biloxi Blues (amazingly, Simon’s first such win after twenty plays in 24 years) could have prepared for the unambiguous recognition of his qualities as a serious American dramatist with Lost in Yonkers six years later.
In addition to another Tony Award for Best Play, Simon also collected his first Drama Desk Award in the same category before proceeding to pull off the triple crown of America’s most prestigious awards for dramatists: the Pulitzer Prize. With Lost in Yonkers, the transformation of Neil Simon’s reputation was complete and with the Pulitzer he did something that eluded even Brooks, Reiner and Allen.