Brighton Beach Memoirs
David Cromer directs a beautifully calibrated, superbly acted revival of Neil Simon's 1983 autobiographical play about a struggling Brooklyn family.
Indeed, during this one tumultuous week in 1937, the members of the Jerome clan are faced individually and collectively with a series of life-altering challenges. In particular, 15-year-old Eugene Morris Jerome (Noah Robbins), baseball fanatic and aspiring writer, is dealing with his first case of serious lust -- for his first cousin and housemate Nora (Alexandra Socha), who wants to drop out of high school to be an actress. Eugene's older brother, Stanley (Santino Fontana), is struggling with the responsibilities that come from having to help support his family, especially as the Jerome patriarch, Jack (Dennis Boutsikaris), first loses his part-time job and then suffers a health crisis.
Meanwhile, strong-willed mother Kate (Laurie Metcalf) is showing the strain of keeping it all together -- not to mention getting Eugene to eat his liver -- which leads to a long-overdue confrontation with her dependent, widowed younger sister Blanche (Jessica Hecht), who lives with the Jeromes along with daughters Nora and Laurie (Gracie Bea Lawrence).
As he's proved with his recent acclaimed productions of Elmer Rice's Adding Machine and Thornton Wilder's Our Town, Cromer's particular gifts as a director are to bring even the most theatrical characters to recognizable and fully-dimensional life and to establish a particular rhythm for the world they inhabit. And here, even when Cromer must embrace the occasional over-jokiness of Simon's mostly heartfelt script, he wisely downplays the work's sitcom-like qualities to focus on the human drama. In the production's best moments, there's a sense that we have dropped in, unobserved, on an endangered species in their natural habitat. (Cromer even encourages the actors at times to talk over each other or turn their backs to the audiences.)
Much of the credit for the revival's success belongs to its crackerjack ensemble, starting with always-estimable Metcalf, who gives an unforgettable performance. In lesser hands, Kate can come off as little more than a hard-edged, almost stereotypical "Jewish Mother," but the actress not only makes sure that we see Kate as a product of both environment and temperament, but ensures that we are constantly aware of her genuine love for the family that surrounds -- and periodically exasperates -- her. Kate's gentle interactions with Jack, played with innate decency and quiet strength by Boutsikaris, and her protective yet slightly resentful attitude towards Blanche, touchingly embodied by Hecht, provide a much-needed complexity.
Making an auspicious Broadway debut, Robbins exhibits the expert timing of a seasoned Borscht Belt comedian; but more importantly, he fully captures the now-almost-unthinkable innocence of a sheltered teenager who can't even imagine that a woman would volunteer to have a nude photo taken. The young actor also has fantastic chemistry with the superb Fontana, who marvelously embraces Stanley's man-child dichotomies.
True, the play no longer has quite the same impact it did in 1983, when it signaled a new maturity in Simon's writing. (How we will feel about the superior Broadway Bound, which will soon be presented in repertory with this play, remains to be seen.) Still, Brighton Beach Memoirs remains an accomplished, moving, and sometimes hilarious piece of writing. It's a play that is well worth seeing -- for the first, second, or third time.