Thursday, October 8, 2009

Brighton Beach Memoirs

Think of Brighton Beach Memoirs as the anti-“August: Osage County,” and you will have a pretty good idea of what you are in for when you choose to spend the evening with the Jerome family. These days, that’s not a bad thing.

Just as Tracy Letts’s “August: Osage County” rubbed our collective noses in the Jacobean-like lives of America’s ultimate dysfunctional family, this revival of “Brighton Beach Memoirs” is playwright Neil Simon’s paean to and re-imagining of his childhood (would it be disillusioning to note that Simon himself grew up in the Bronx and Queens, and that his parents were divorced?). No vitriol-spewing drug-addled stories here; this is the tale of a solid, caring family whose quibbles are minor and underpinned with a great deal of love—not the gushy huggy sort of love, but the kind that surrounds and protects a family struggling to keep its head above water during the years of the Great Depression when the play takes place.

I have to say that I did not expect to be won over by this play, which I had seen previously only in its movie incarnation, and of which I only have a fuzzy recollection. Simon was always accused of never letting character development get in the way of snappy one-liners, and that admittedly holds true with “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” which picked up three Tony Awards in 1983—two for featured acting, and one for long-time Simon collaborator, director Gene Saks, but not even a nomination for the play itself.

The surprise for me was that the snappy one-liners still work, and that it is difficult not to be drawn in and feel affection for the Jerome family. This is not a witty play where you appreciate the cleverness of the writing and acting (e. g. “God of Carnage,” which, by the way, I thoroughly enjoyed); its humor stems from the characters themselves, sketchily-drawn though they may be.

The Jeromes are not without their troubles: financial woes, a heart attack, and the Holocaust are among the plot elements, and there is a sense that the same story might have been told in a significantly different way by someone like Arthur Miller. The difference is that Simon chooses to laugh in the face of doom and to embrace the day-to-day events in the lives of people that he does seem to cherish.

A tip of the hat to director David Cromer, whose credits include some terrific work with recent downtown productions I have found to be thoroughly engaging, including “Adding Machine” and “Orson’s Shadow.” The cast members of “Brighton Beach Memoirs” are uniformly solid and work well as an ensemble, even in the early preview performance I saw. Laurie Metcalf, who earned her acting chops as an original member of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater (even if you only know her as Roseanne’s sister in the TV sitcom “Roseanne”), is especially good in the role of Kate Jerome, the mother of the family who sees it as her duty to keep everyone fed, clothed, and safe from the travails of a then-as-now scary world. Equally strong is Noah Robbins, as Eugene, the fifteen-year-old narrator, budding writer, and hormonally-charged adolescent whom we are presumably supposed to take as a strand-in for the young Neil Simon himself.

“Brighton Beach Memoirs” will be joined later this fall with a production of Simon’s “Broadway Bound.” Together these represent two-thirds of a trilogy of “memory plays,” (“Biloxi Blues,” which came in between these two, is being skipped.) Much of the cast of “Brighton Beach Memoirs” will pick up their roles in “Broadway Bound,” which takes place a decade later, and I find myself looking forward to spending more time with the Jeromes.

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