Story: Eugene Morris Jerome is just about 15 years old and just about sure of what he wants to do with his life. If he has his druthers, he’ll be playing professional baseball for the New York Yankees, his hometown team in the year 1937. Otherwise, Eugene plans to be a writer. As such, he chronicles the daily goings-on in the Jerome household, which he shares with his parents Jack and Kate, older brother Stanley, widowed Aunt Blanche and her two daughters Nora and Laurie.
It’s a tight fit, squeezing seven people into the modest Brighton Beach home shared by the Jeromes in the shadow of Coney Island. While Jack tries to make ends meet with two jobs and the help of Stanley’s wages in a local factory as the Great Depression maintains its grip on America, there are ominous winds blowing in Europe which Jack fears will lead to another war. Meanwhile, Eugene is concerned about getting close looks at his beautiful older cousin, finding out about puberty from his beloved older brother and avoiding his mother’s dreaded liver and onions.
Highlights: In the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! category, Brighton Beach Memoirs is the first play written by Neil Simon to be produced by The Rep in its illustrious 46-year history. To atone for that glitch in its bountiful list of productions, Rep artistic director Steven Woolf teams with his estimable cast and crew for a memorable presentation of characters based loosely on Simon’s upbringing in the same era.
Other Info: Brighton Beach Memoirs is the first of Simon’s Eugene Trilogy, semi-autobiographical stories that also include Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound that follow the adventures of Eugene from inquisitive teenager to fledgling soldier to a young playwright working on the Great White Way. The original production enjoyed more than 1,300 performances from 1983 to 1986, but a 2009 revival shuttered quickly with little fanfare.
Simon’s list of hits in his magical career is lengthy and accomplished because of his ability to write dialogue that fleshes out characters to make them genuine and identifiable to an audience. While his early career was marked by full-fledged comedies, many of his later efforts, such as this one, realistically balance amusing one-liners with poignant drama, albeit scenes that can sometimes be a bit soapy and melodramatic.
Woolf introduces us to Eugene’s world with a magnificent, two-tiered set designed by Michael Ganio. You can see a bit of the Coney Island roller coaster in the background, along with a telephone pole up front that marks the street where the Jeromes live. Phil Monat’s lighting design carefully shines the focus on action taking place in various rooms, including the two bedrooms upstairs, one shared by Eugene and Stan, the other by Nora and Laurie.
Downstairs are the living room and dining room, with a door leading to the unseen kitchen and another door stage right that opens to the street. Rusty Wandall’s sound design brings the sketchy quality of Jack’s radio to the fore, as do the pinpoint period costumes that are courtesy of Elizabeth Covey and the sundry furniture that gives that set a specific ‘period’ look.
Director Woolf maintains a smooth and comfortable pace in the work’s two acts, although the second stanza bogs down occasionally, most notably in some melodramatic scenes between aspiring actress Nora and her indecisive mother. For the most part, though, playwright and director bring us a precisely etched rendering of a time and place in a prototypical American family.
In contrast to Simon’s own quarreling parents, Jack and Kate genuinely love each other and support their family with love and direction. Adam Heller makes Jack a sturdy and solid type while still accessible enough to tell Stanley about his own youth and his occasional pitfalls into gambling. As Kate, Lori Wilner exudes strength and consistency as the backbone of the Jewish Jerome clan, but also shows us her own blind spots, particularly when denigrating an Irish neighbor who has a fancy for the still attractive Blanche.
Christianne Tisdale, Aly Viny and Jamey Jacobs Powell suitably fill the roles of Blanche, Nora and Laurie, respectively with both angst and dry humor. Michael Curran-Dorsano finely depicts Stanley as a young man starting to make his own way in the world, listening to his father’s advice but not without serious challenges that can impact the family’s fragile finances.
And, as Eugene, Ryan DeLuca is the glue that holds this story together, throwing off amusing one-liners but also sharing his and Simon’s observations directly with the audience about all matters of consequence in the household, all of them important to some degree.
Simon has enjoyed a legendary career with good reason, and The Rep has selected one of his deeper works to welcome him into its own stellar history.
Play: Brighton Beach Memoirs
Group: Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Venue: Browning Mainstage, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
Dates: Through September 30
Tickets: From $19.50; contact 968-4925 or www.repstl.org
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos by Jerry Naunheim Jr.