October 28, 2009

The Good Old Days of "Brighton Beach Memoirs"

My grandmother was one of nine southern farm kids and the first to move to New York City.  Over the years, three of her siblings and nearly all her nieces and nephews followed her here and although that was during the Great Depression and she was struggling to raise her own three children, Grandma took her relatives in and shared what she had until they could afford to support themselves.

Such Depression-era survival stories and the familial loyalty that helped people get through those days are common to many families, inspiring as we struggle to pull ourselves out of the current economic morass and the reason that the new revival of Brighton Beach Memoirs, Neil Simon’s comedy about coming of age during the ‘30s that opened at the Nederlander Theatre on Sunday night, may win over theatergoers as it did my theatergoing buddy Bill and me.

For over 30 years, starting with Come Blow Your Horn in 1962, a new Simon play opened on Broadway every season but it was Brighton Beach Memoirs, the first of the autobiographical works now known as the Eugene Trilogy, that established Simon as more than just a guy who knew how to write jokey dialog. (Click here to read a New York Magazine appraisal of his career.)  Simon is now 82 and his trademark mix of comedy and sentimentality seemed to have gone out of style.  He hasn’t had a new show on Broadway since 45 Seconds from Broadway closed after just 73 performances in 2002.  And recent revivals of three of his other works—Sweet Charity, The Odd Couple and Barefoot in the Park—performed only slightly better. 

It may prove different for Bright Beach Memoirs.  For starters, David Cromer has been brought in to direct the show.  Cromer, who helmed the brilliantly revisionist production of Our Town that is still playing down at the Barrow Street Theatre, establishes a naturalistic tone that cares less about hitting the punch lines (although there are still plenty of laughs) than mining the emotional bonds that connects the extended Jewish family in the play. The result is that the audience doesn’t so much laugh at the characters as smile with them.  And wistfully wonders why more families today aren’t as loving and forgiving of one another.  Or at least that’s what I found myself thinking.

The play’s household consists of Jack Jerome, who works two jobs to support the six other family members who live in his Brooklyn home and still finds the time and sensitivity to counsel all of them, his world-wary wife Kate, their two sons Stanley and Eugene, Kate’s widowed sister Blanche and her two daughters.  Things in the real Simon household (and in my grandmother’s) probably weren’t as rhapsodic as memory or this play would have it but Dennis Boutsikaris and Laurie Metcalf give the elder Jeromes an unaffected sexiness that undercuts Jack and Kate’s saintliness. Jessica Hecht perfectly captures the passive-aggressiveness of the destitute relative forced to take handouts. And Santino Fontana brings real brio to the role of the eldest son and big brother every kid longs to have (click here to see scenes from the show)

But the central character and narrator is 15-year-old Eugene, the stand-in for Simon’s younger self, and the weight of the show rests on his pubescent shoulders.  Matthew Broderick made his Broadway debut and won a Tony for his portrayal of Eugene in the original 1983 production. Now, the character is brought to vivid life by Noah Robbins, a gifted 19 year-old whose Playbill bio charmingly lists his most recent previous credit as appearing “Off- Off- Off- Off- Off-Broadway as Max Bialystock in his high school’s production of The Producers.” (Click here to read a Washington Post profile of him.)

I’m more ambivalent about the production design.  John Lee Beatty has created a terrific-looking two-story set but it seemed pretty roomy and comfortable for a family struggling to make ends meet. The sound design by Josh Schmidt and Fitz Patton has its problems too. Instead of body mics, they’ve placed 23 mics around the set (click here to read a Wall Street Journal article about how and why they did it) and since actors don’t project the way they once did what you hear is uneven. The entire production is overseen by Simon’s longtime producer Emanuel Azenberg (click here to listen to a Downstage Center interview with him) and at the performance Bill and I attended, he stood at the back of the theater making sure that everything was right. 

And, for the most part, it is.  Starting in December, Brighton Beach Memoirs will play in repertory with Broadway Bound, the final part of the trilogy.  Robbins is too young-looking to play an older Eugene so the part will be taken over by Josh Grisetti who was terrific last year when he played Carl Reiner’s alter-ego in the revival of the coming-of age play based on Reiner’s novel  "Enter Laughing." Advances for the two Simons plays are reportedly low and there’s been some nervousness about whether they will survive but I’m already looking forward to a return visit to the Jerome’s.   

Update: Unable to sell tickets, despite generally good reviews, the producers canceled Broadway Bound and closed Brighton Beach Memoirs a week after it opened.

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