Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs” at Workshop Theatre – a review

Eugene Jerome is a dreamer, spinning baseball playoff fantasies in which he is both star and announcer. These dreams alternate with visions of being a writer, wishes
that his family might occasionally cut him some slack, and most importantly, wishes of seeing a girl naked.  Any girl, even if it’s his nubile cousin Nora, staying with the Jeromes along with her mother and little sister after her father’s death. In other words, Eugene is a 15-year-old boy, and the alter-ego for author Neil Simon, whose acclaimed Brighton Beach Memoirs is very loosely based on his own life.

In Workshop Theatre’s new production of this classic, both Jared Kemmerling, as Eugene, and Connor Odom, as older brother Stanley, are playing about two years above their own age, but capture the essences of their characters perfectly. As narrator, Kemmerling addresses the audience directly, setting up assorted family issues that take place over a week in September of 1937, as seen from the highly subjective point of view of a bright but smart-aleck teenager, who just happens to have the most successful comedy writer of the 20th century providing his dialogue.  These interactions play out, with Eugene often adding a running commentary along the way via asides to the audience. The role of Eugene made a star of Matthew Broderick on Broadway and earned him a Tony, and Broderick has to some extent been playing the same impish wisecracker who talks to the audience ever since.  Kemmerling really has good timing and stage presence, especially for such a young actor, and Odom’s age actually works, giving him the impression of being a baby-faced young adult, which explains some of his struggles to make decisions and be taken seriously as a man, not a boy.

I must confess that it’s hard for me to be completely impartial here since I know these folks so well.  No, not the actors, although I’ve met a few of the older cast members in passing a few times, but rather the characters, as some 22 years ago I played older brother Stanley in a local production of Simon’s sequel to this play.  For me the most moving moments here were the natural interaction between the two brothers, and Stanley’s frank discussions with his father about what it means to be an adult, but take that with a grain of salt.

The beauty of this show (and what brought it so much acclaim in the 80’s) was that it marked a change in tone for Simon, who had already been mining his own life experiences for material for years. (If you ever want to see two brothers, one naive and one worldly, as swinging bachelors in New York, check out Simon’s very first play, Come Blow Your Horn; if you’re curious about how one copes after divorce, see The Odd Couple, or for how the other copes after the death of a spouse, see Chapter Two.) Here Simon takes his ear for dialogue and ability to portray the range of ordinary human emotions, and allows them to flow naturally for entire

the real-life models for Eugene and Stanley: Danny Simon (L) and little brother Neil, 35+ years after the events of “Brighton Beach Memoirs”

scenes, without significant punch lines, until Eugene pops in at the end to sum everything up from the viewpoint of both the sarcastic kid, and the mature writer’s memory.  Upstairs, the brothers engage in frank, and hilarious, discussion of the mechanics of puberty that wouldn’t be out of place in American Pie or Portnoy’s Complaint.  Downstairs, it’s close to Tennessee Williams territory as the adults wrestle with problems that threaten to tear the family apart. Perhaps in the greater scope of things they don’t have it so bad: Dad risks his health by working multiple jobs to support his family in the middle of the Depression, widow Blanche imagines herself as unemployable, unattractive, and a burden to her sister, hot cousin Nora and little sister Laurie feel neglected and under-valued by their still-grieving mom, and Stanley makes some unwise decisions at work.  So, pretty much any family anywhere, but Simon’s genius allows us to see how intensely routine domestic conflicts can affect those involved. There is no perfect resolution; instead, forgiveness, acceptance, compromise, the occasional white lie, and the lost art of actually talking things out provide a fragile peace, until the next mini-crisis arises.

Samantha Elkins, as Blanche, and Lou Warth, as mom Kate, are best at capturing the

The Jerome family of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, New York, c. 1937

sound and tone of Jewish Brooklyn residents, but Kemmerling was getting there even as the opening night performance progressed. The pale blonde Warth has gone brunette, while the striking Elkins (who stepped into this role only two and a half weeks before opening) dons glasses, pins her hair back, and drops her voice by an octave or so to play much older than her own age. Both are quite believable, and do some good dramatic work in a deeply hurtful argument over virtually nothing.  Their best moment together comes as both draw inward, their backs turned as they fight back tears, unable to express how shocked and sad each is to have turned on her sister. Father Jack (Hunter Boyle) is a long-suffering mensch who accepts his mandatory role as head of the family in any number of “just wait ’til your father gets home” scenarios, but prefers to offer his modest wisdom as reasonable advice. Boyle is an accomplished, veteran actor who has distinguished himself when cast against type, especially as a sympathetic Juan Peron a few years ago in Evita. Here, sadly he is simply the wrong actor for the role, and isn’t particularly believable. Fortunately, he delivers his lines with good timing and clarity, allowing his partners on stage to shine in their scenes. The miscasting doesn’t really hurt the play much at all, but it doesn’t help anything either.  Allie Stubbs and Catherine Davenport alternate as Nora; I saw the latter on opening night, and she and Kimberly Hubbard (as Laurie) have some good moments on stage, together and with others, but I must warn all of the younger cast members: as a former Stanley, I can attest that the upstairs level of the set will swallow your lines, so project as you have never projected before!

Speaking of that upstairs level, Randy Strange‘s set design is practical: a completely realistic rectangular box with the fourth wall removed would be boring, and would pose sightline difficulties for audiences on each side of center. Instead, the home’s living and dining room areas are opened out, giving the actors plenty of space in which to move, and the upstairs bedrooms are angled and situated to be as close to the audience as possible. (But a few extra mikes up there still couldn’t hurt.)  Director David Britt successfully helps his cast to navigate the fine line between comedy and drama which the characters cross and recross so often. Still, with the name Neil Simon attached, a fair number of potential audience members are likely to be convinced that this is hokey, sit-com style family fluff, which it isn’t. Likewise, others may be taken aback by the blunt discussions of sexuality, some salty language, and a few stretches of fairly dark conflict, which are no worse than anything on, say, Mad Men, but just be advised. Ultimately this is one of the most beloved and praised works from one of the biggest comic playwrights of the last 60 years, performed capably by some good local actors, in an enjoyable community theatre context. Brighton Beach Memoirs run through Sat. Jan. 26th; contact the Workshop box office at 799-6551 for ticket information.

~ August Krickel

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