Brighton Beach Memoirs | 9.5-30.12

(M1) Brighton Beach MemoirsSimon writes characters that are flawed, yet lovable. Brighton Beach’s characters are all flawed, but just slightly.

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Ryan DeLuca as Eugene. ©Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.

St. Louis Repertory Theatre, St. Louis

The first time I saw Brighton Beach Memoirs was in the mid-80s with my mother who was approximately the same age in 1937 (the year the play takes place) as the play’s central character Eugene. It provided a perspective that might have escaped other viewers of this Neil Simon play. Like the characters in the play she was one of two sisters with dreams of escaping the all-encompassing Depression – to be a dancer or go to college. Dreams that were soon replaced with an early marriage and enlistment in the military. The play reminded her of her youth – of relatives in need or of reveling in the ordinary everyday gifts that were next to free – and it offered a connection.

This led me, when seeing the play which opens the 46th season of the St. Louis Repertory Theatre, to wonder if Simon’s signature work had become an anachronism. It feels a bit dated in today’s modern interpretation of what it is to be a family. While it is a great play, certainly one firmly in place as an American masterpiece, the characters, a Jewish family living in 1930’s Brooklyn almost drift to the edge of caricature. The story of a family living in a beach-side, working class neighborhood of Brooklyn features Eugene (Ryan DeLuca), a smart-mouth 14-year old who is in the throes of puberty and a budding writer, acts as our guide to his family. His father and mother, Jack (Adam Heller) and Kate (Lori Wilner), 19-year old brother Stanley (Michael Curran-Dorsano), Aunt Blanche (Christianne Tisdale) who joined the household six years prior after the early death of her husband, and her two daughters, Nora (Aly Viny) and Laurie (Jamey Jacobs Powell). Eugene reveals that the family is doing well, despite the hard times, with Jack and Stanley bringing in enough to keep them in their home and eating. His major concern is seeing his cousin Nora naked “on accident” in their common bathroom. As the play opens that is all about to be tested – a job lost, a paycheck gambled away, opportunity knocking, health problems, and long buried resentment bubbling up – and lessons will be learned. I don’t think I am giving away much to say that the right things happen in the end and we come out of the play seeing the bigger picture.

The Rep’s production succeeds for several reasons. The set by Michael Ganio offers the audience easy entry into the Jerome household. Not only was it effective, allowing for characters to be in their rooms while the parents are talking in the living room, but it was inviting. In a way it was a split screen that allowed for the play’s drama or humor to be heightened. The cast also offered some strong performances that can often get lost in a well-known and period-driven play. It is never easy being Eugene where you have the ghost of Matthew Broderick (who played the character in the original production) hovering over you, but Ryan DeLuca did a great job of not reminding us too much of Ferris Bueller or a young Woody Allen. Eugene oozes just the right amount of irritating and lovable. As Jack, Adam Heller reminded me a bit of George C. Scott (which is troubling if you only remember him primarily for Patton), but he did what Simon intended, he made you yearn for him to be your dad bursting as he is with tons of common sense, hard work, and a vast love for his wife. This ability to make you like the characters, to make you wish for them to be your family (or to see you family in them if you are lucky) was shared by the rest of the cast. While director Steven Woolf had a very solid, time-tested vehicle to work with and he did much to invigorate this cast to be desirable.

So is the play a throwback? Is it out of synch today? Not really. Simon writes characters that are flawed, yet lovable. Brighton Beach‘s characters are all flawed, but just slightly. Over the course of the play there is a threat of loss of what makes them strong – family loyalty. That threat is counter-acted and overcome by the play’s conclusion. In no small way is this motivated by the larger “elephant in the room,” the approaching war in Europe. Our unity and the ability to forgive the small differences that confront every relationship is so much easier to find when a common enemy is looming. Looking at Brighton Beach Memoirs today (30 years after it was first on Broadway), it is not hard to make the connections that Simon succinctly places in front of us. The play’s embrace of a strength in numbers and an acceptance that each of us is just a little flawed (and different) is something that plays well in both good times and bad. It is just a little easier to see when times are hard. | Jim Dunn

Brighton Beach Memoirs plays on the Rep’s Mainstage through September 30, 2012. For further information, visit www.repstl.org.

About Jim Dunn 126 Articles
Jim Dunn grew up in NY in the 70s and 80s. Even though that time in music really shapes his appreciation it does not define it. Music, like his beloved history is a long intermingled path that grows, builds and steals from its past. He lives in Colorado with his lovely wife and a wild bunch of animals.

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