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Brighton Beach Memoirs – Broadway Play Review

  

BRIGHTON BEACH: A MEMORY

 

picture - Brighton Beach MemoirsTheater Review

by Harvey Perr

published November 8, 2009

 

Brighton Beach Memoirs

recently closed on Broadway at the Nederlander

 

The Jerome family –Jack and Kate, their sons Eugene and Stanley, Kate’s widowed sister Blanche and her daughters Nora and Laurie – sit down for dinner in their bungalow of a house in Brighton Beach circa 1937 – and a mini-symphony of silverware upon china is heard as they start to eat. In that one moment, we see clearly what it is that David Cromer, the director of the revival of Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs, is trying to do. He is trying to find, in the ordinary little things we do, the music in our lives and, more significantly, the music in Simon’s play. He zeroes in, in order for us to step back and see it whole. 

 

And Mr. Cromer has surrounded himself with a brilliant set of artists who become accomplices in his dissection of the circumstances that enfold this play like shadows that encroach upon the sunshine we expect in a beach resort, even one in the far reaches of Brooklyn. In John Lee Beatty’s cramped and homely house, in the shapelessness of Jane Greeenwood’s ill-fitting dresses and in the snugness of their clothes that tell us that the boys are growing faster than their jackets, in Tom Watson’s plain wigs that reflect how off-limits beauty salons must have been for the two sisters, we sense not only the vestiges of the Great Depression but the ongoing poverty that keeps this family entrapped. But, in playing a comedy almost entirely in chiaroscuro – it costs money to keep the lights on all the time – Brian McDevitt’s lighting design actually contributes a sense of poetry, a shimmering ray of light filtering through the darkness.

 

picture - Brighton Beach MemoirsAnd Cromer’s actors move with a sense of defeat and weariness that makes absolutely clear that being poor is a physical curse as well as a fact of life; that, when things get bad, it is entirely possible that a man in his early forties can get a heart attack, and women, presumably only in their late thirties, already show signs of being bent with age. Only the young can move with anything approximating speed and flexibility. In youth, the spirit is willing. With age, the flesh is weak. Can a comedy support such an oppressive weight of truth?

 

What about the one-liners which are Simon’s stock in trade? What about the zingers his characters throw at each other to keep everyone in place? The sarcasm? The tart on-the-ready ripostes? Oh, they’re there, all right, but, in their mouths, it sounds as if these people are telling jokes to each other in order to hide their anguish, to keep total emotional repression at bay. And, as in real life, some jokes come out funny, some don’t. These are not mean people; they are decent people trying to grapple with pain. These people are capable of bathroom humor. Sometimes they even have to retreat to the bathroom to practice it.

 

What has David Cromer done? He has discovered Chekhov in Simon. Who would have thought that of all the American playwrights who have been influenced by the great Russian dramatist – and what American playwright hasn’t emulated Chekhov? – it would be Neil Simon who would come closest to achieving the ideal of writing the great American Chekhovian play? Here was the humor, the poignancy, the heartbreak, the hilarity, the unspoken and sometimes disturbing feeling of a world in flux inhabited by people who couldn’t quite make sense of it all.

 

picture - Brighton Beach MemoirsYou will, however, have to take my word for it. The shocking truth is that Brighton Beach Memoirs, despite glowing reviews and a new-found respect for Neil Simon, closed a week after it opened. And Broadway Bound, which was to be its companion piece, running in repertory, was closed before it even had its first preview. It felt like an attack on the state of the American theater. But it seemed that everyone had a reason as to why it failed, particularly those who didn’t see it. Some felt that the two plays should have opened simultaneously in order to create an event. Some just said that Neil Simon was no longer relevant to today’s audiences. Even I had to admit that I lost interest in Simon a long time ago and was not really eager to see many of the later plays, and that a few minutes of the film version of Brighton Beach Memoirs was so unwatchable that I shut the television set off. My main reason for being interested in this production was an avid interest in Cromer, whose work on Adding Machine and Our Town was a combination of poetry and revelation that made them two of the best evenings of theater in the past two seasons. Some felt that, although he was full of the kind of praise that would have normally been considered high indeed, Ben Brantley’s review in the venerated New York Times was a bit nit-picking and not what is considered a “money” review. That the production lacked “stars.” Why Brighton Beach Memoirs failed will be discussed for a long time by people passionate about the theater, but like the production itself, it will fade into memory.

 

 I can only say that I was glad to have seen it. That, yes, I laughed and I cried. That it was everything I expect a great evening in the theater to be. And I salute everyone involved and the cast – Noah Robbins, Santino Fontana, Dennis Boutsikaris, Jessica Hecht, Laurie Metcalfe, Gracie Bea Lawrence, Alexandra Socha – for their good and honest work. The fact that it is no longer with us was no reason not to make it clear that something important this way passed.

 

harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com

 

all photos by Joan Marcus

 

 

 
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