Posts Tagged ‘brighton beach memoirs’

Brighton Beach Memoirs
by Neil Simon
Directed by Alan Knoll
New Jewish Theatre
October 10, 2019

Jane Paradise, Jacob Flekier, Laurie McConnell
Photo by Greg Lazerwitz
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is starting a new season with a celebrated work by one of America’s most prolific playwrights, Neil Simon. The first in Simon’s “Eugene Trilogy”, Brighton Beach Memoirs is a semi-autobiographical tale that veers swiftly between comedy and drama at times, but ultimately it’s a poignant and nostalgic coming-of-age story, even if it is dated in places. Especially, this production features a strong cast that makes the most of the comedic and dramatic elements of the story.

The story is set in 1937 in the Brighton Beach area of Brooklyn, New York, and narrated by Simon’s teenage avatar Eugene Morris Jerome (Jacob Flekier). Eugene is an aspiring writer, and this story is part of his “secret” memoir. In addition to his writing ambitions, Eugene is also interested in baseball (particularly the New York Yankees), looks up to his older brother Stanley (Spencer Kruse), and harbors an increasingly intense crush on his older cousin Nora (Summer Baer), who along with her younger sister Laurie (Lydia Mae Foss) and their widowed mother, Blanche (Laurie McConnell) has been living with Eugene’s family. Eugene’s mother Kate (Jane Paradise) is concerned about the well–being of all of her family, including hardworking husband Jack (Chuck Brinkley), her sons, and her younger sister Blanche and her daughters. It’s the Great Depression in America, and the threat of war is looming in Europe, and the family members have their own hopes, goals, and fears, as Eugene deals with puberty and his future goals, Stanley deals with a moral dilemma at his job, Jack deals with financial struggles and the concerns of taking care of a family, as does Kate. There are family conflicts between the lonely Blanche and her aspiring dancer daughter, Nora; between Kate and Blanche who have old issues to settle; between Stanley and his parents, and the expectations set on him by his family; and more. Eugene is the central figure and the narrator, but the primary conflicts are mostly within the rest of the family, as the hardships of the world and expectations and conventions of society are reflected in the conflicts and hardships of the family. It’s an insightful, witty script for the most part, with some fairly intense drama that is built up well, but there are some moments that can come across as jarring for a 2019 audience, especially in the expressed attitudes of Stanley and Eugene toward girls and, particularly, Nora. Still, for the most part this is a poignant and thoughtful comedy/drama, with a hopeful bent toward the end even despite the continuing tensions in the wider world. It’s been described by Simon (as noted in the director’s message in the program) as somewhat of an idealization of his childhood and his family, but nonetheless these characters seem believably real, especially as portrayed by the excellent cast in this production.

As for that cast, each cast member seems especially well-chosen for this production. As Eugene, Flekier is full of energy and enthusiasm, portraying the teenager’s adolescent angst and occasional cluelessness with admirable clarity. There are also fine performances from Kruse as the conflicted Stanley, Baer as the determined Nora, and Foss as the occasionally snarky young Laurie. The adult characters are especially well-played here, as well, with truly remarkable performances from Paradise and McConnell as the contrasting sisters Kate and Blanche, with McConnell especially bringing out a lot of the heartwrenching poignancy of her story. These two are especially believable as siblings, and their scenes together are a highlight of the production. Paradise also has credible chemistry with the also excellent Brinkley as the world-weary, well-meaning Jack. Brinkley’s presence as the strong-but-fair father figure is readily apparent in all his interactions here, especially with his sons. It’s a strong ensemble, representing a believably imperfect but generally loving family unit, reacting to each other and to their times in sometimes humorous, occasionally heartrending ways.

As is usual for NJT, the physical production is top-notch, with a terrific, painstakingly detailed two-level set by Margery and Peter Spack that evokes the era ideally. Michele Friedman Siler’s costumes also fit the period and characters well. There’s also excellent atmospheric lighting by Michael Sullivan, and impressive sound design by Zoe Sullivan, effectively bringing the audience along for the story and into 1930s Brooklyn.

Brighton Beach Memoirs is a well-known show that I hadn’t managed to see before this production, and I’m glad that New Jewish Theatre has given me my “introduction” to this piece on stage. It’s an impressively cast, well-realized production that reflects Simon’s witty and occasionally intense script especially well. I’m finding myself hoping NJT will stage the other two plays in the “Eugene Trilogy” in future seasons, with as much of the same cast as they are able to retain. This is a strong start to a new season for New Jewish Theatre.

Jacob Flekier
Photo by Greg Lazerwitz
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is presenting Brighton Beach Memoirs at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until October 27, 2019

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