Brighton Beach Memoirs
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 28, 2009
Word has already come that this new revival of Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs will close after just one week of performances, and that its companion piece, Broadway Bound, won't materialize at all. This is sad news, but I have to tell you that even though Brighton Beach is a very funny and very warm-hearted play, seeing it made me feel sad too.
This is, as you may know, a rose-colored look back at Simon's own childhood, featuring the lovable, smart, and irrepressible Eugene Morris Jerome, 15-year-old Yankee wannabe, wise-cracker and stand-in for the playwright himself. The year is 1937, during the Great Depression, and the place is the Jeromes' modest but crowded apartment in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Eugene is the younger of two sons of Jack and Kate Jerome; Jack is a clothing cutter by day and scrambling to find other employment by night to keep his household together; Kate actually does keep the household together with her mix of street smarts, superstition, thrift, guts, and good humor. Stanley, Eugene's 19-year-old brother, has a job at a men's hat shop. Kate's sister Blanche, a widow whose asthma and poor vision render her relatively unemployable, also lives here, along with here two daughters, Nora and Laurie.
They're a family who cares about each other, and cares for each other, even if they don't stop to say "I love you" very often. I was reminded over and over again of Kathryn Forbes's classic I Remember Mama, about a similar family (though Norwegian instead of Jewish) struggling to make ends meet during hard times. Each of these tales is narrated (confided, really) by the smart kid in the family who will grow up (we know) to become a famous writer. With affection but without sentiment, memories of hardship and poverty are sweetened with ample humor and occasional wisdom.
Director David Cromer seems to approach Brighton Beach Memoirs not on these terms, though, but rather in the same way that he did with his wonderful Our Town last season. Which is to say, naturalistically, without compromise; encouraging his actors to find what's real and what's universal in their characters so that whatever depths may exist in the play will reveal themselves to the audience.
Trouble is—and here's the reason why seeing this show ultimately made me sad—Brighton Beach Memoirs isn't exactly loaded with depth and profundity. It's a crackerjack Simon comedy, based in the 1-2 rhythms of its endless stream of (almost always very funny) jokes. Take that timing and those rhythms away, as happens most of the time here, and all that shows are the play's seams. This Brighton Beach Memoirs feels like a bad production of Shakespeare, much of the time: because nobody on stage really appears to be fully in tune with the thing, all that you end up noticing are the flaws in the script. For every one-liner that made me crack a smile, there was a credulity-straining moment to make me wince.
The cast assembled here is clearly competent, but with the exception of Dennis Boutsikaris as Jake, I didn't really observe anyone on stage who seemed fully at ease with the Simon style. Noah Robbins as Eugene and Laurie Metcalf as Kate—these are the two pivotal roles in the play—simply feel too contemporary to get to the hearts and souls of their characters. And Metcalf seems unaware that Kate, in addition to her various stereotypical "Jewish mother" attributes," is a funny, good-humored woman—the kind of person you'd believe could spawn not one but two accomplished comic minds (Neil Simon's real-life brother Danny was also a comedy writer).
When I left the theatre, though I'd had a better-than-okay time (certainly the most pleasant evening at a Broadway show so far this season), I was filled with trepidation about Metcalf's ability to succeed as the Kate Jerome we would meet in Broadway Bound. I carry cherished memories of that show and the indelible performance of Linda Lavin in its original production back in 1987. My reasons for loving that show are mostly personal, and I am actually quite relieved that I won't have to test my fond memories of the piece by seeing another rendering of it this season.
The moral of this story is one that I keep hoping the powers-that-be in the Broadway arena will someday learn. Let sleeping dogs lie! There's a budding Eugene Morris Jerome/Neil Simon out there right now, and ten years from now, I would much rather see his or her first play on Broadway than...oh...a revival of Superior Donuts.