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A CurtainUp Review
Brighton Beach Memoirs
The Neil Simon Plays
By Elyse Sommer
With this first of a triptych of quasi-autobiographical family comedies, the playwright who honed his skills for zinger driven scripts during his days with Sid Caesar's Show of Shows, began to move into deeper, more emotional territory. The current revival still has plenty of laughs. It's just that director David Cromer is giving us a more balanced view. He hasn't made the jokes disappear just caused them to retreat from front and center so that this Brighton Beach Memoirs is a play that lets comic business lighten but not drown out its sorrows.
Cromer, contrary to what you may have heard, isn't at all an oddball choice for giving Brighton. . . a fresh feel. In his second book, And the Play Goes On, Simon wrote that in making Eugene the narrator who named his diary "The Unbelievable, Fantastic and Completely Private Thoughts of I, Eugene Morris Jerome, in Brighton Beach, Borough of Brooklyn, Kings County, City of New York, Empire State of the American Nation " he may have borrowed a little of Thornton Wilder's Our Town. It's Wilder's ever popular Our Town that of course polished Cromer's star as a director. His version of that classic which is continuing its acclaimed Off-Broadway run (review). ably tapped into the play's Americana flavor, but without the usual, overly sweet sentimentality.
As he did with Wilder's play, Mr Cromer has remained true to the original text. However, in highlighting its darker elements he's made it more the play it always deserved to be. To reach into the dark corner of the Jerome household without letting the sunnier elements disappear into the clouds, the director has pointed his baton at every element of this production — from the interpretation by the performers to the show's look and feel.
He has teased warmth, heartbreak and humor out of his cast. Unlike some of the celebrities whose names lend glitz to this season's marquees, the only name likely to be instantly recognized by most theater goers is the playwright's, which probably accounts for the umbrella title of The Neal Simon Plays for this and its soon to be added repertory partner, Broadway Bound. That said, this is a stellar ensemble. All are seasoned actors who imbue these characters with warmth, heartbreak and humor.
The one acting newcomer is Noah Robbins. Nineteen, but totally convincing as a 15-year-old, he's a thoroughly endearing and original Eugene, enough so to dispel any yearnings for Matthew Broderick who pioneered the role. Under Cromer's deft direction, his Greek chorus asides to the audience are naturally integrated into the interactive scenes. Eugene's and brother Stan's (the also excellent Santino Fontana) interchanges in the double decker set's upstairs bedroom are hilarious. but also bring out the genuine sibling bond between these two.
The look of the show is equally commendable, starting with the curtain that's imprinted with that precociously long Wilder-inspired title. John Lee Beatty's richly detailed, over-populated two-story Brooklyn house is a perfect setting for the tension within its walls (if you associate this set designer with drop dead elegance like the current revival of The Royal Family, you'll find he is just as wizardly in creating more humble abodes). Jane Greenwood's costumes and Brian MacDevitt's lighting enhance this mood-evoking atmosphere.
The shift from one drama-within-the drama, with inactive actors often remaining on stage, is more elegant than, but nevertheless reminiscent of Cromer's Our Town — the focus in this case being on one family. As for that family's Jewishness, the Jeromes though very definitely Jewish, could be the Murphys or any other family living in a neighborhood like Brighton Beach, under the shadow of the great Depression and the approaching second World War. But the play's "Jewishness" is irrelevant since this is a coming of age story and by extension an examination of Eugene's journey into manhood as a member of a family whose kinship triumphs over hardship. After all, were it not for his brother's gift he could not have told his diary "I have seen the Golden Palace of the Himalayas. . .Puberty is over. Onward and Upwards."
I have an artist friend who draws a daily cartoon called Grumpy Bear and who invites her followers to send in their ideas about things her bears should be grumpy about (http://www.crankybears.com/daily/dailycranky.html). I've been tempted to tell her to have Grumpy Bear complain about the way tried and true revivals outnumber new plays on Broadway. But not this marvelously invigorated Brighton Beach Memoirs! In fact, I can't wait for Broadway Bound, to complete this Neil Simon double header, especially since it will again feature Laurie Metcalf as Kate, the Jerome family's emotional switchboard; Jessica Hecht who's never been better than as Kate's widowed sister Blanche; Dennis Boutsikaris as the overworked father who really does seem to know what's best and the likeable Santino Fontana. That production's addition of Josh Grisetti who charmed all who saw him in the York Theater's revival of Enter Laughing (review) as a grown up Eugene adds to my eager anticipation.
P.S. Neil Simon's Pulitzer-prize winning Lost in Yonkers is also making a comeback this week but you'll have to take a trip to Washington DC to see it-- or else settle for reading about it when our DC critic sends us her review.