Saturday, November 14, 2009

Auburn "Brighton Beach Memoirs"

Neil Simon's 1982 semi-autobiographical "Brighton Beach Memoirs" may have closed recently in New York due to low ticket sales, but the production now showing at Auburn should have a successful run. Judging from the enthusiastic opening night response, director Scott Phillips has a hit on his hands.

Part one of Simon's so-called "Eugene Trilogy" [it was followed by "Biloxi Blues" and "Broadway Bound"], the play is set in the home of a Jewish-Polish immigrant family in the Brighton Beach neighborhood of Brooklyn in Depression Era 1937, and contains the playwright's trademark humor mixed with some serious issues and detailed character development.

Narrated by the 15-year-old Eugene Morris Jerome -- here played convincingly by Richard Davis -- the assorted family crises are played out for us through the prism of Eugene's clever and touching observations about both himself and the members of his family.

At 15, Eugene dreams of becoming either a famous professional baseball player or a "writer" -- he can't decide which -- and feels constrained by having to conform to all the adults' wishes [and being blamed for everything that goes wrong] and the sexual bewilderment of puberty.

Life is tough in Brighton Beach: the Depression makes jobs scarce and with low salaries for Eugene's father Jack and his older son Stanley, mother Kate struggles to make ends meet in the household where every penny counts, the Jerome's have been sharing their home with Kate's widowed sister Blanche and her two daughters, and World War II is about to erupt -- yet somehow the bonds of family and essential life values sustain them all.

Things come to a head when everyone, it seems, has a problem that must be solved immediately. Cousin Nora, the pretty one, thinks she has a chance of getting a role in a Broadway play, hoping to earn enough money to provide her mother's independence; yet, she has not finished high school and will need the diploma for her future. Stanley gets fired from his job on a matter of principle and does not want to sacrifice principle for anything. Blanche feels frustrated by her dependence on the kindness of her family. The long-suffering Kate seeks to protect everyone, especially the children, and maintain a peaceful home. And each must seek advice from Jack who has been working two jobs, one of which is ending.

There are a lot of contradictions in the characters' behaviors, ones that are made believable by Simon's script and the talents of the actors who say the lines with conviction. They emerge as very human characters. For example, Kate tries to find the good in all things, yet she hates the Irish neighbors she has never met, calling them "those people" and pigeonholing them as dirty drunks. Stanley and Eugene are constantly at odds with one another, yet their bond as siblings is strong enough to allow us to believe that they can either love or hate one another within a minute's time. Nora requests Jack's advice, though she resents the fact that he is not her father and therefore has no right to advise her.

Any number of these confrontational scenes are played truthfully by the individual actors. As Nora, Heather Rule's naive enthusiasm at her Broadway prospects and then her deflation and anger at being told there are more important things in life ring true. When Blanche [Laura Walter] and Kate [Bridget Knapik] finally have it out -- the sibling rivalry that has been festering for all their lives is out in the open --we believe them and accept Jack's [John Tourtellotte] hands-off attitude as he tells them it is about time they talked about it. We feel compassion for Ben Young as Stanley when he is made to stand up for his principles despite disappointing or angering his parents.

A quibble here: With so much at stake, it is unfortunate that so much of the heightened emotions were played at the same loud volume; it is tiring for an audience to listen to so much yelling when other choices are available to the actors, and variety would have made it more palatable.

Through it all is Eugene...commenting, criticizing, glibly poking fun, and coming to terms with his own place in the family and the human race. He is fixated on sex -- he is curious and eager to learn, and Stanley guides him through this journey as only an older brother can: honestly and openly, yet with a bit of derision that comes from his own flawed understanding. As Eugene darts from one subject to another, and lets us in on his thoughts with frequent aside comments directed at the audience, we become his co-conspirators, in a way...and that is the root of much of the humor of the piece. We like Richard Davis in the role, so we are inclined to share his roller-coaster ride with the same enthusiasm he brings to it.

Pip Gordon's scenic design replicates a detailed two-storey house of the period, giving more credence to the production. And the actors' attention to authentic Brooklyn dialect [thanks to vocal consultant Daydrie Hague] lends even more credibility to the performances.

What keeps us attuned to the Jerome family are the themes that transcend time and place: people of principle, the bond of family, sacrifices we make for one another, charity seeking no recompense, the dignity of the individual...and a sense of humor...that is essential.