Tonight's best play competition will center around two contenders: Neil Simon's "Lost in Yonkers," winner of the Pulitzer Prize and Drama Desk Award, and John Guare's "Six Degrees of Separation," winner of the Drama Critics Circle Award.
Mr. Simon's play -- his 24th -- is a traditional domestic drama, focusing on a Jewish family in Yonkers, N.Y., during World War II. The grandmother, a German refugee, has devoted so much effort to staying alive that she has forgotten how to live. Physically crippled during a demonstration in her native land, she has raised a family of emotional cripples.
"Lost in Yonkers" contains some of the most richly drawn characters in the Simon oeuvre, but they're weighed down with excessive exposition. The play begins when two adolescent brothers are sent to live with their grandmother. The boys tell us so much about the other characters that when those characters appear, there's little left for them to show us.
In contrast, "Six Degrees of Separation" is sparer and more tightly constructed. Based on a news item about a con artist who posed as Sidney Poitier's son and won the trust of several prominent New Yorkers, the play questions the appeal of celebrity and, most intriguingly, the motivations behind charity.
The direction and set design situate the actors in the front row of the theater when they're not in a scene. In other words, they become part of the audience. "They're no different from you," this thought-provoking play seems to be saying. "What would you do in their place?"