Bob Goepfert Reviews "Brighton Beach Memoirs"
Anyone who has ever called Neil Simon simply a writer of shallow comedies should be forced to see the production of his play “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” playing a Curtain Call Theatre in Latham. Attending the play, which continues through July 16, is a revelation. This is a tender and wise production of a marvelous play that is in danger of being neglected.
Simon is often called “Doc” because of his reverence towards Anton Chekhov, the legendary Russian playwright who was a country doctor. “Brighton Beach Memoirs” is Chekhovian in style in that it creates a world that is so honest it reflects an entire culture at a specific place and point in time.
The time is 1937 and the story is about a Jewish family living in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. The Great Depression still lingers and though life is a struggle the play is an uplifting tale about family members who care about each other. Living with the Jerome family is the widowed Aunt Blanche and her two teenage daughters. This means the house supports three adults, and two adolescent females, an almost 16 year old boy, and an 18 ½ year old working son who helps with his limited salary of $17 a week.
There are tensions within the group, but no dysfunction. This is a positive play about good people who support each other.
The undercurrent that drives the play is the search every family member has for independence. Jack and Kate love Kate’s sister, Blanche. and her two girls, but there is no question their life would be easier without them. Aunt Blanche craves a place of her own to raise her children. Stanley is old enough to be on his own, while Eugene just wants not to be the youngest male to whom all petty chores seem to fall. The girls want what every teenager wants – freedom from parental oversight.
Simon doesn’t grant everyone their wish, but by play’s end he grants each person the insight to know the luxury and protection that a kind and supportive family offers. Like in a work by Chekhov, nothing much happens, but over the course of the nearly 2 ½ hour play everyone changes.
There is a lot of humor in the work which mostly comes from Eugene’s wry observations and cynical comments. Played as wise beyond his years, Henry Sinnott captures the charm and flippant good nature of the almost 16 year old who reflects a generation that questions the status quo, without being a rule breaker. His coming –of-age issues gives the play needed lightness.
Indeed, one of the remarkable achievements of the production and of director Nan Mullenneaux who gets such strong performances from Sinnott and the rest of her young cast. Sarah McGovern is ideal as the 16-year old girl who feels neglected and in need of her father. She is able to show the selfishness that comes with the age, without being dislikable. Brooke Hutchins does the same as the malingering 13 year old Laurie. Jacob Luria is effective as Stanley, Eugene’s older brother, but he is distracting as he physically appears too old for the role.
The adults are very strong. If played less saintly, the grown sisters might give the play a bit more tension, but both Mary Darcy as Blanche and Pamela O’Connor as Kate capture the conflicts that exist between them as sisters and as parents. More important, they convey the sincere love and respect they share for each other. Their story is the feel-good part of the play.
Steve Leifer is the father Jack, a metaphorical brother to Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof. His even temperament helps him bear the weight of the world and his wisdom permits him to understand all sides of a story. He is also smart enough to know the conflicts in Europe will soon affect his family and he’s kind enough to be ready to open his already cramped home to his Jewish relatives fleeing tragedy.
“Brighton Beach Memoirs” is a play that was neglected in 1983 by not being nominated for a Tony Award. Don’t overlook it now.
“Brighton Beach Memoirs” at Curtain Call Theatre, Latham Through July 16. 877-7529
Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record
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