Friday, October 9, 2009

Theater Review: Brighton Beach Memoirs

Location: Nederlander Theatre, 208 West 41st St., NY, NY

Website: Official The Neil Simon Plays site

Starring: Noah Robbins, Laurie Metcalf, Jessica Hecht, Santino Fontana, Alexandra Socha, Dennis Boutsikaris, Gracie Bea Lawrence

My Review: Even those who aren’t theater fans are familiar with playwright Neil Simon and his multitude of “slice of life” productions, many of which have also become movies and TV shows. He’s the man who’s responsible for The Goodbye Girl, Barefoot in the Park, The Out-of-Towners, Lost in Yonkers, and The Odd Couple. This fall, two of his iconic classics—Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound—are getting back to back revivals in the same theater.

Both plays feature the Jerome family in their simple Brooklyn home, their story told through the eyes and smart mouth of Eugene. In Brighton Beach Memoirs, it’s 1937 and Eugene is 15, dreaming of playing professional baseball for the Yankees, but worrying that his Jewish heritage will get in the way of any athletic aspirations. In the first act he unfolds the events of one particularly tense night in the Jerome household, with the second act following up a week later. There’s the issue of his cousin, Nora, wanting to quit school to be a professional dancer. Then his older brother Stanley is “this close” to losing his much-needed job. His younger cousin has a chronic health problem, his widowed aunt is working herself blind and in desperate need of a new husband, and his overbearing mother can’t keep from fretting over everyone. Everyone eagerly awaits the arrival of Jack the patriarch—who’s working two jobs to make ends meet—to resolve their various family squabbles, while Eugene observes and keeps a notebook of all the details, determined to be a writer if the whole baseball thing doesn’t work out.

Brighton Beach Memoirs isn’t really a plot-driven play; it’s a relationship-driven play. There isn’t a lot of action happening on stage, so if you’re looking for a high-energy night of theater, you’re likely to be bored. But if you appreciate well-crafted moments between characters and enjoy finding the nuances in their relationships, that’s where the heart and soul of this play lies. You get to see a day in the life of this family, which could be a day in the life of anyone’s family. You get to see the happy veneer that’s painted over strained relationships, the explosions that occur when that veneer cracks, and the inevitable, dutiful love and affection that comes from family discord—something that is both painfully funny and truthful to see mirrored from your own life and onto a stage. The play may take place in 1937 Brooklyn, but the issues of the Jerome family are the issues of most families today.

This particular production of Brighton Beach Memoirs is particularly well cast. Eugene has to routinely break the fourth wall, swaying from being in the play to narrating it to the audience. The entire show lies in the actor playing that role, which seems sort of unfair in a role that requires a young actor. But Noah Robbins handles the responsibility with aplomb, easily hopping in and out of the play and expertly portraying everything about being 15; the sass, the frustration, the confusion, the dreaming, and, of course, the horniness. Laurie Metcalf is undoubtedly the most well-known cast member, and as Kate, the Jerome family matriarch, she has the loving-yet-critical Jewish mother down, which can be either hilarious or heartbreaking, depending on how she decides to turn it. Her best moments are when she shares the stage with her sister, Blanche (played by Jessica Hecht, who will always be Carol’s lesbian lover from Friends in my eyes). After years of strained sisterly love, Blanche and her two daughters move into her sister’s home following the death of Blanche’s husband, and Kate’s desire to do right by her sister contesting with her pain and anger from their childhood creates some of the best—and most tense—moments of the show.

While this production isn’t perfect—the first act plods a bit and some of the blocking makes hearing the actors difficult—it’s still a testament to the talent of Neil Simon that Brighton Beach Memoirs has aged so well. Some of the cultural references are a bit dated, but family dynamics have seen precious little change over the years, which can make you want to both laugh and cry—often at the same time.

Bottom Line: There are times when the first act of Brighton Beach Memoirs drags along, but it’s laying all the groundwork for the more explosive second act, which is a great reward for your patience. The nimble cast brings the Jerome family to life, making them feel like an actual family, and one that you quite possibly know (or are a part of). Broadway Bound, which revisits the Jeromes 12 years later, begins playing in mid-November and utilizes the same cast (with a new actor playing an adult Eugene). Hopefully I’ll be able to see it and find out if the baseball career works out for him. My educated guess? Probably not.

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