Monday, November 2, 2009

Simon Remembers

Brighton Beach Memoirs
Written by Neil Simon
Directed by David Cromer
Starring Laurie Metcalf, Dennis Boutsikaris, Noah Robbins, Alexandra Socha, Santino Fontana, Jessica Hecht, Gracie Bea Lawrence

Performances through November 1, 2009
Nederlander Theater
208 West 41st Street

Brighton Beach Memoirs, Neil Simon’s autobiographical comedy about his Depression-era family in Brooklyn, wasn’t a mere accumulation of one-liners, but instead was built on both characters and jokes, making it virtually unique in the Simon canon at that time (it premiered on Broadway in 1983, and was one of his biggest hits).

Simon’s conceit was to have his alter ego, the teenaged Eugene Morris Jerome, narrate as if he’s a famous writer looking back at his growing-up years. So there are plenty of occasions for the usual snappy one-liners, but they come in the context of a playwright deliberately putting them into his teenage self’s mouth for comic effect.

Eugene lives a typically lower middle-class existence with his close-knit family: hard-working father Jack; stern but loving mother Kate; older brother Stanley; and Kate’s widowed sister, Aunt Blanche, and her daughters, young Laurie and older (and object of Eugene’s fantasies), Nora. During the Depression, money is scarce and the specter of war with Hitler’s Germany looms large, yet the Jerome family keeps its collective head above water, abetted by Simon’s own humorous, if over-idealized, touches.

No one would ever mistake Neil Simon for an incisive writer and creator of multi-dimensional characters, obviously, but in David Cromer’s naturalistic staging, Brighton Beach Memoirs is both mildly funny and mildly dramatic, a well-acted and directed production of an old-fashioned, commercial Broadway comedy. (That this revival’s run has been cancelled before the second Simon play, Broadway Bound, could join it in repertory puts the lie to the “commercial” appellation, at least as it applies to Neil Simon in 2009.)

On John Lee Beatty’s second magnificent two-tiered set this season—The Royal Family is the other—Cromer puts his cohesive cast through its paces well enough, starting with Noah Robbins as our narrator Eugene. Surely the best thing about this show, Robbins effortlessly balances the farcical horny-teen aspects with the more tender (or, less charitably, sentimental) parts. That the play remains funny and touching is in no small measure due to him. (Jane Greenwood’s costumes and Brian MacDevitt’s lighting also work their wonders on the setting and the story.)

Dennis Boutsikaris gives a restrained portrayal of Jack, a man trying to handle the great demands on him as the family breadwinner. Jessica Hecht, though often shrill as Aunt Blanche, has good moments in the more intimate scenes with her daughters, played agreeably by Gracie Bea Lawrence and Alexandra Socha, while Santino Fontana does some nice underplaying as brother Stanley. In fact, only Laurie Metcalf giving a one-note, unsympathetic portrayal of mom Kate is a major miscalculation, which must be shared by the talented actress and her director.

It would have been interesting if Metcalf and Cromer’s collaboration on Broadway Bound had brought about a less caricatured Kate, but its closing has rendered that possibility moot.
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