When it’s beyond bashert

When it’s beyond bashert

Role of grandma in Neil Simon play goes to woman who ‘relates’ to the part

Hedi Molnar rehearses “Lost in Yonkers.”
Hedi Molnar rehearses “Lost in Yonkers.”

There are a lot of really talented actors among us.

Not all of them work professionally. Some have other lives, to which they devote much of their time and through which they support themselves; they have families for whom they must be — and want to be — present.

So they work at their jobs, take care of their families — and then use their talents in community theater.

Which is to say that most community theater actors are very good. Most are trained and experienced, and they work their way up.

So it’s really unusual for a first-time actress to waltz in and secure one of the leads, a formidable character who dominates the stage and the family on it.

But that’s what Hedi Molnar of Florham Park did when she won the role of Grandma in Neil Simon’s somewhat autobiographical, early 1940s-set “Lost in Yonkers.” (See below.)

To be clear, Ms. Molnar did not get to the audition unprepared — she worked hard on it — and she’s done stand-up. But this is her first scripted play.

She got the part of Grandma Kurnitz, the ice-cold, rock-hard German-accented family despot guarding a secret, because her life prepared her for it.

“When I auditioned, I thought that I probably had more insight into the character than most people did,” Mrs. Molnar said.

Her mother, Ruth Lipschitz, and her brother landed in New York Harbor in the mid 1930s; she was 12 and he was a year older. “Everyone has heard of the Kindertransport, but she and her brother were two of about 1,000 unaccompanied children who managed to get into a program that I believe was run by HIAS to bring children to the United States from Germany,” Mrs. Molnar explained. “I don’t think the program had a formal name, but the children of the children involved in it called it 1,000 Children.”

For a while, Ms. Molnar continued, there was a website about the children, “but I think it is faded. I’ve done some research about it, and I’ve learned that in that period — and not unlike now — Americans didn’t want immigrants.” Unlike now, though, “they certainly didn’t want immigrants from Germany.”

Ruth’s family came from a small German city called Osnabrück, but later they moved to Berlin.

Ms. Molnar found her parents’ naturalization documents.

Because Ms. Molnar’s parents didn’t talk about their childhoods, and because her mother died unfairly young, when she was 44, after a hard life, before she had the chance to change her mind and tell her story to the adult daughter she didn’t live to know, Ms. Molnar was free to romanticize. “I always thought that my grandparents must’ve been so forward-thinking, to have gotten their children out of Germany so early,” she said. They must’ve been very well-connected to have gotten them into the program.

“But when I went to do research on the program at the 92nd Street Y, where they keep the archives from the orphanage in Manhattan where the children lived at first, I saw that their lives there were pretty well documented.

“There are letters from my grandparents, and what I saw in the letters was that my grandfather was very poor. He didn’t have money to feed the kids, and that’s why they sent them away.

“It was a shocking revelation. My whole life, I had a story in my head that my grandfather had been in World War I, that he had an Iron Cross. I had romanticized it.” She had made up a story far more sweeping and glamorous than the truth.

“I knew that my mother had gone from the orphanage to live with the foster family in New Rochelle, and I knew that somehow she had managed to get her parents out.”

Ms. Molnar always had known that her mother’s childhood had been difficult. “But when my own children were 11 or 12, I realized how traumatic it would be to be put on a boat to go to a foreign country where people spoke a foreign language, where you don’t know anybody, and you don’t know if you will ever see your parents again.’

Her father, Bela — later Bill — Molnar, was 25 when he got to the United States in 1947. His daughter knows that he came from the part of the Carpathian Mountains that rotated between Hungary and Romania. She knew that the name Bela Molnar is quintessentially Hungarian and hadn’t been her father’s until shortly before she was born; she knew that his own father, who also survived the war, moved to Israel and was surnamed Edelstein.

“My father died at 78 in 2000, but we never talked about his childhood,” Ms. Molnar said. He never talked about how he survived. I do know that he survived alone. He was not in a concentration camp. He didn’t have a number on his arm. The only thing he did have on his forearm was a homemade-looking tattoo, a skull and crossbones. It had the word Ploesti on it.

“I believe they were oil fields there. I think he was in a work camp. How he made his way to Rome, which I know he did, is a total mystery. I have no idea how that happened.

“I do know that when he was in Rome, he was in a large singing group. He loved to sing. I think he’d have loved to be an opera singer.

“All the questions about him are mysteries.”

He didn’t sing much after his American life began, Ms. Molnar continued. “I don’t remember ever hearing him. He worked in the dry-cleaning business. He worked six days a week, from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., so there wasn’t much time for him to indulge in his interests.”

Like Neil Simon’s family decades earlier, the Molnars moved around the Bronx. First, they lived “in a tenement situation, parallel to a candy store, like in ‘Lost in Yonkers,’” Ms. Molnar said. Then Highbridge, and then on the Concourse, near Yankee Stadium, and then on Fordham Road, and then in the Pelham Parkway area.”

Meanwhile. Ms. Molnar grew up. She graduated from City College and forged a career that saw her moving between publishing and radio. Her fascinating résumé began with catalogues at Columbia; included a stint with a group of small newspapers owned by a rich guy who soon lost interest in them; a long run at an influential small publishing house; a job as a researcher reading and writing about the connections between historic figures and music for WQXR; a range of interesting jobs at the New York Times, begun because “I was able to wrangle an interview with Abe Rosenthal, the managing editor, because he happened to be a fellow City College graduate.” Then she worked for Nexus/Lexus; “In the days before the internet I sold electronic information to businesses,” she said.

Oh, and during that time she got married. She’s now the mother of two children. “I have quit a lot of jobs, but this is a job you can’t quit,” she said. They’re both young adults; neither has children, so Ms. Molnar is not yet a literal grandmother.

She’s been a member of Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield for a quarter of a century. “I just adore it,” she said.

But how does this get her to a leading role in a straight play?

It’s not as if she had no theatrical experience; it’s just that her experience wasn’t directly relevant.

“I have been involved in theater in some ways all my adult life,” she said. In her early 30s, she produced a way far-off-Broadway show; later, she was involved in her kids’ theater programs at camp and at Verona High School. “Theater is not foreign to me,” she said. “I speak the language.”

Occasionally, Ms. Molnar had done “comedy in New York in a workshop format,” she said, but that was a long time ago. “During the pandemic, and particularly because of ‘Mrs. Maisel,’ I did think of going back to it — but who wants to see a 70-year-old woman as a comedian?”

Then she saw the casting call for “Lost in Yonkers” on Facebook, of all places.

It can be overwhelming at times, Ms. Molnar said. “It’s a very wordy play, and I have about 20 to 25 percent of all the lines.”

That’s a lot to learn.

But although she had to learn the lines, Ms. Molnar said, she didn’t have to learn the part. An imperious German Jew with power and secrets — she’s got it. “It was bashert,” she said.

Who: Pioneer Productions presents

What: Neil Simon’s “Lost in Yonkers”

Where: Morristown United Methodist Church

When: October 27, 28, November 3, 4 at 8 p.m.; October 29 and November 5 at 3 p.m.

For tickets and information: pioneerproductionscompany.org

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