Given that there are no name performers in the show, one might wonder -- before seeing it -- why the Cape Playhouse would choose to offer an imported Brighton Beach Memoirs rather than mount their own version. As it turns out, the Asolo production fully deserves the extended life it's being given. Bravo to both companies for allowing audiences to enjoy one of Neil Simon's best plays in an excellent staging by Pamela Hunt.
As you probably know, Brighton Beach Memoirs was the first in a semi-autobiographical Simon trilogy concerning his life in Brooklyn and in the army before he achieved success as a writer for the great Sid Caesar's TV show and, later, as Broadway's most popular and successful comedic playwright; the other two plays in the trilogy are Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound. In some ways, Brighton Beach Memoirs is the best of them all -- a delightfully nostalgic look at life in pre-war Brooklyn that has its share of tears to go along with the countless laughs we expect from this master of comedy.
A salient feature of the play is what may very well be the best leading role every written for a comedic juvenile: Eugene Morris Jerome, i.e., the young Neil Simon. Matthew Broderick was catapulted to stardom in the part, and Michael DeSantis's hilarious and winning performance at the Cape Playhouse is almost equally triumphant. This young actor has the character's hilarious speech patterns and inflections down pat, so he doesn't miss a single laugh, and he also shares some wonderfully heart-tugging moments with brother Stanley in Act II. As is the case whenever it is well directed and performed, the scene in which Stanley wises up Eugene on the subject of masturbation brings down the house. The audience beams every time DeSantis speaks; since Eugene is the most prominent role in the play, this means that there's a whole lot of beaming going on.
Another great role in the play is Kate Jerome, mother of Eugene and his brother Stanley. Elizabeth Franz was phenomenal in the part on Broadway and Barbara Redmond is no less phenomenal -- but very different -- on Cape Cod, expertly limning this put-upon matriarch and serving as a perfect foil for DeSantis. David Breitbarth is a warm, strong presence as father Jack Jerome, and Bryan Barter is so good as Stanley that he's able to play the more melodramatic aspects of the role without wallowing in them. Carolyn Michel is spot-on as aunt Blanche; so is Tara Caruso as her protected, precocious daughter Laurie. The somewhat weak link in the cast is Laura Lowry, whose rather stagy, theatrical characterization of Blanche's older daughter Nora doesn't really jibe with the work of her colleagues. (On the other hand, teenage girls do tend to be theatrical, don't they?)
Set designer Jeffrey W. Dean has done well with the Jeromes' home, and costume designer Colleen Muscha has clad the cast in a manner that clearly and specifically indicates "Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, 1937." The one major flaw of the production is Mark Lanks' lighting, which will be unacceptable to anyone who doesn't enjoy seeing actors' faces partly obscured by shadows.
Neil Simon has had a rough time of it in recent years, with such Broadway misfires as Proposals and 45 Seconds From Broadway; nor was The Dinner Party universally loved. So it's great to re-see one of his best efforts, Brighton Beach Memoirs, in such a satisfying production.