By Owen Gleiberman
Updated May 21, 1993 at 04:00 AM EDT

Even the title has an air of desperation. Did Neil Simon’s name finally get stuck above the credits because of his show-biz stature, or because today’s audiences need to be reminded that he’s a Big Deal? Set in the early ’40s, Lost in Yonkers is one of his ”mature” works: We get the yelling and the hugging-the Broadway dysfunctionalism-without the one-liners. Mercedes Ruehl, grinning like Sylvester the cat, brings every bit of warmth and charm she can to the impossible role of Bella, a 36-year-old childlike neurotic goofball (oh, but with dreams! Such dreams!) who still lives at home with her cold-as-steel Germanic mother (Irene Worth). Playing this neo-Victorian monster, Worth does the kind of hambone tyrannical turn that can work in the theater — she won a Tony for this performance — but in the movies seems hideous in its lack of human shading. Her Grandma Kurnitz is so cruel and unyielding, such a beady-eyed crone, she’s like Norman Bates’ mother reborn as a Nazi. When Bella shows interest in a sweetly simpleminded theater usher (David Strathairn), the old woman acts as if her gene pool were being threatened.

As Uncle Louie, Richard Dreyfuss resurrects his terminal case of the cutes. He preens and mugs, does Damon Runyon wise-guy routines, and brings back — yes — the Dreyfuss Giggle (only now it sounds like a BB rattling around in his throat). Dreyfuss is a pain, but he’s the only comic relief in this earnest slog of misery and guilt. In the press material, Simon is quoted as saying, ”Comedy based on comedic situations has no weight to it. I mean, you can laugh at it but you forget it the minute you’re out of the theater.” Has he seen The Philadelphia Story? Annie Hall? Much Ado About Nothing? If there’s anything audiences will want to forget, it’s the torturous spectacle of Mercedes Ruehl spending two hours working up the courage to move out of her commandant mother’s house. D+