Story: Eugene Morris Jerome is not quite 15 years old but he already knows what he wants to be: A writer. Unless, of course, he’s signed to play shortstop for the New York Yankees or a select few other Major League baseball franchises. He draws the line, though, at the St. Louis Browns.
He lives a comfortable, middle-class life in September 1937 in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn, even if he shares a bedroom with older brother Stanley. That’s because his cousins Nora and Laurie have shared the other upstairs bedroom since they and their mother Blanche moved in with the Jeromes following the untimely death of their father a few years earlier.
The reason they all are at least a little ‘comfortable’ is because Eugene’s father, Jack, works two jobs and high school graduate Stanley contributes his small weekly paycheck as well. While Eugene lusts over 16-year-old Nora’s ample ‘development,’ Jack frets about the growing Nazi menace in Europe, where several of his and wife Kate’s extended families still live.
Jack wants Eugene to go to college, regretting that he couldn’t afford to pay for Stanley’s higher education. Blanche, a timid soul whose asthma keeps her more or less confined to the house, has her own decision to make when Nora is invited to be part of a new Broadway musical. The teenager wants to experience the bright lights, but what about her education?
Nora’s younger sister Laurie is pampered because of her “fluttering heart,” but is she over-protected? And are Kate’s maternal instincts slowly being frayed by the ongoing pressure of feeding and caring for so many family members, including her sister Blanche and her nieces? Welcome to life with the Jeromes.
Highlights: New Jewish Theatre opens its 2019-20 season with a finely crafted and touching interpretation of Neil Simon’s excellent autobiographical play, which ran on Broadway for more than 1,300 performances in the 1980s.
Other Info: In his program notes, artistic director Eddie Coffield writes that after Simon passed away in August 2018 at age 91 he “knew immediately that we would produce one of his plays this season in honor and celebration of one of America’s greatest and prolific playwrights. I think Brighton Beach is his greatest play.”
Indeed, Brighton Beach Memoirs, the first in Simon’s “Eugene trilogy” which also includes Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound, has its abundant share of laughs evoked in Simon’s inimitable, witty style. It also is a play with considerable pathos. As director Alan Knoll observes, Simon looks back on his childhood in this comedy which has “even more grounding and allows audiences to connect even more fully with his characters.”
Knoll quotes an interview with Simon from 1981 when the playwright said, “When I was a kid...I went through some really rough times. My new play, Brighton Beach Memoirs, talks about that time – but I try to show the parts of those people that were loving...As you grow older, you become more forgiving, because you see you have the same faults in yourself.”
Thus, Brighton Beach Memoirs is a poignant comedy and not a documentary. That’s just fine for most of us and Knoll lovingly guides his tightly-knit cast in this heartwarming and affecting production.
It’s easy to admire the handsome set designed by Margery and Peter Spack, so evocative of a middle-class American home. It’s two levels, with the kids’ bedrooms on the upper portion while the bottom level serves for a living room at stage right, a dining room at stage left and doors leading to the unseen kitchen and the rest of the house. Stairs at stage right feature a row of family photos on the wall, while the front door leads to the ‘outside’ at stage front.
Lighting designer Michael Sullivan shifts his focus of illumination around the set depending on the scene, while Zoe Sullivan’s sound design includes Big Band tunes and the crackling uncertainty of an old radio in the living room.
Costume designer Michele Friedman Siler pays attention to the finer points of the era’s attire, from Eugene’s tennis shoes to Stanley’s dapper look and Jack’s cuff links and the dresses worn by the women and girls, even at home. A nod also goes to props supervisor Katie Orr for Eugene’s period baseball glove and the pennants and posters adorning the kids’ bedroom walls.
Jacob Flekier instills Eugene with the animated exaggeration required to accentuate the teen’s puberty and his contagious zest for life. He’s at his best listening and responding in shouts of amazement at older brother Stanley’s teachings about the finer points of life, including the magical mystery of girls, and a reflexive, good-humored reaction to seeing himself as the cause of any family catastrophe, no matter how small.
Spencer Kruse is splendid as Stanley, a lad who sticks up for the downtrodden at work with potentially alarming consequences, but also with a knack for trouble even when he knows it’ll upset his parents. Summer Baer displays the petulance and overwrought emotions of the budding Nora, who clashes frequently with her mother, and Lydia Mae Foss is amusing as the smart and observant Laurie.
There’s fine work by Jane Paradise as the loving if authoritarian matriarch Kate and a wonderfully expressive turn by Laurie McConnell as Blanche, who takes umbrage when Kate refers derisively to “those people.” That's the Irish family Murphy across the street, including tippling son Frank, who has a soft spot for Blanche. Chuck Brinkley completes the cast with a richly wrought portrayal of Jack, devoted family man and hard worker in Simon’s rose-colored, rear-view mirror.
Simon said that the Jeromes “aren’t heroes. But I am kind to them and show their better aspects, because that’s the impression they left with me.” This superb New Jewish Theatre presentation may help you recall warm memories of your own upbringing as you study Simon’s snapshot of his childhood.
Play: Brighton Beach Memoirs
Company: New Jewish Theatre
Venue: Wool Theatre, Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive
Dates: October 17, 19, 20, 24, 26, 27
Tickets: $47-$54; contact 442-3283 or newjewishtheatre.org
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Greg Lazerwitz