Broadway takes a new look at Neil Simon’s ‘Brighton Beach Memoirs’

By Michael Kuchwara, AP
Sunday, October 25, 2009

B’way takes a new look at ‘Brighton Beach Memoirs’

NEW YORK — Eugene Morris Jerome is quite the quipster.

Even at age 15, the lad can rattle off one-liners with machine-gun precision and get a laugh. He’s also a keen observer of his family’s turbulent domestic life in 1930s Brooklyn, the setting for “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” Neil Simon’s lightly fictionalized tale of his own adolescence.

Eugene is a young Simon, of course, and the play is a skillful and, dare we say it, heartwarming remembrance of things past. It represents Simon’s stretching his considerable talent as a comic craftsman, finding something more than a parade of wisecracks in this look at an eager, over-imaginative kid yearning to grow up and become a writer (or maybe play for the New York Yankees or get a gander at his cousin Nora’s breasts).

“Brighton Beach Memoirs” was first seen on Broadway in 1983 with Matthew Broderick as Eugene. Now it’s returned in an enjoyable revival, which opened Sunday at the Nederlander Theatre, with Noah Robbins, a gawky, thoroughly ingratiating young actor, as the play’s narrator and anchor. Robbins’ self-deprecating charm sneaks up on you as Jerome struggles to deal not only with his parents but the outside world as well.

You could call “Brighton Beach” a comedy-drama, a play peppered with amusing, often jokey dialogue alternating with poignant moments of personal confrontation and reconciliation. Yet the disconnect is not as disruptive as it could be thanks to David Cromer’s smooth, seamless direction and an accomplished cast.

On designer John Lee Beatty’s detailed, two-tiered setting of the family home, Simon captures the day-to-day drama of the Jerome clan. Besides Eugene, the crowded household consists of his formidable mother, Kate, played with a fierce streak of no-nonsense by Laurie Metcalf; his overworked father, a convincingly weary Dennis Boutsikaris, and Eugene’s older brother, Stanley, idolized by his younger sibling as the fountain of all knowledge, particularly about sex. Santino Fontana creates a strong portrait of this good-intentioned mentor of delightful misinformation.

Add to these a trio of live-in relatives, widowed Aunt Blanche (Jessica Hecht) and her two daughters, nubile Nora (Alexandra Socha) and younger, perpetually sickly Laurie (Gracie Bea Lawrence).

If their home environment is dicey, the outside world looks worse. It’s 1937. The Depression lingers and storm clouds in Europe are getting more ominous with talk of war and the fate of the family’s Jewish relatives in Poland.

For the Jeromes, problems are much more immediate. Bitter, unspoken feelings between Kate and Blanche finally erupt in a fierce battle between the two sisters that gives both Metcalf and Hecht their finest moments on stage. And there’s a touching scene between father and oldest son that allows Boutsikaris and Fontana to shine in what turns out to be some of Simon’s most poignant writing. It’s restrained but remarkably emotional at the same time.

It was with “Brighton Beach,” that Simon, author of such popular comedies as “The Odd Couple,” ”Barefoot in the Park” and “The Sunshine Boys,” moved on to more ambitious themes.

“Brighton Beach Memoirs” is the first in a trilogy of vaguely autobiographical plays following the adventures of Eugene. It was followed in 1985 by “Biloxi Blues,” with Eugene serving in the Army during World War II, and then “Broadway Bound” (1986) as Eugene tries to make it in show business as a comedy writer.

This season Broadway will get two-thirds of the trilogy as “Broadway Bound” joins “Brighton Beach” in rep at the Nederlander. It opens there Dec. 10 and with much of same cast, including Metcalfe, Boutsikaris, Hecht and Fontana. An important change: Josh Grisetti will portray the adult Jerome. Let’s hope he will be a worthy successor to the irrepressible Robbins.

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