"Brighton Beach Memoirs" – An Elegy

Watching the family of seven in Brighton Beach Memoirs trip over one another, share dinners, get into squabble and fights and sort through the chaos of daily living made me smile knowingly as I recalled my own childhood. My mother, my father, my three brothers and myself lived together in a house in suburban Westchester, with rampant Irish Catholicism and its trimmings in lieu of Judaism. My father worked as a firefighter and house-painter while my mother tended to the household and make some extra money by babysitting neighborhood kids. Our financial situation was never as dire as the Jerome family, but I think back and wonder how we ever managed to survive together in the house, as I found myself sharing a bedroom with my brothers while six of us sharing two bathrooms. This is never more evident than when all of us reconvene at the family home and we find ourselves near claustrophobic. The chaos of my youth has turned into warm memories of days gone by.

It’s disappointing, but not surprising to discover that The Neil Simon Plays are closing up shop tomorrow after an unfortunately brief run at the Nederlander. Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound were to play in rep, with David Cromer making his Broadway directorial debut (and whose Our Town continues at the Barrow Street Theatre). However, ticket sales have been poor; last week’s average ticket price was $21.32. When the show opened to mixed to positive reviews last Sunday night, the writing was all but on the wall.

Originally I had planned to wait to see both shows in marathon, since The Norman Conquests proved that a full day at the theatre is most exhilarating. However, when I started to hear from the rumor mill that Broadway Bound would be canceled, I took the opportunity to see Brighton Beach Memoirs this past Tuesday. Much like my experiences with Coram Boy, The Lieutenant of Inishmore and Souvenir, I find myself looking back on a show that deserved a better fate and a longer run.

Loosely based on Neil Simon’s childhood, the plays are 2/3 of a trilogy (the other being Biloxi Blues) about the growing up of Eugene Jerome, a precocious kid from an impoverished Jewish American family in the Brighton Beach area of Brooklyn who simultaneously dreams of playing for the New York Yankees in the World Series and becoming a writer. The shows opened in the 1980s, where they were some of the longest running plays of the decade (with Brighton running for 1,299 performances) and established Matthew Broderick’s career (for better or for worse) and garnered Linda Lavin a Tony award (for Broadway Bound).

Cromer has directed his ensemble with pinpoint precision, finding great emotional depth in a play that could easily be played for cheap laughs. Showcasing the humanity of its story and its characters, these characters are fully-formed, dimensional and part of an American family, which also happens to be Jewish. Nowhere is this more evident than in the triumphant, ultimately moving performance of Laurie Metcalf as matriarch Kate who runs her harried household with tough love and a consistently stern exterior. However, it is in the nuance and specificity of Metcalf’s choices that make her a stand-out among the ensemble. There is a particularly striking moment as she descends the staircase while having a breakdown, leading into the first major argument she’s ever had with her sister. Her obvious one-liners and zingers come from a place of deep emotional resonance. Nazism is rapidly expanding in Europe, talk of war becomes more and more prevalent and all the while, she is left to make sure that a family of seven is sheltered and fed. Kate Jerome is a woman who is moving forward with the weight of the world on her shoulders. I only hope that the Tony nominating committee will remember her performance come June.

If Metcalf’s Kate is the rock upon which her family is built her performance is beautifully complemented by Dennis Boutsikaris as her husband Jack, the heart of the household. Jessica Hecht is virtually inrecognizable as Kate’s widow-turned-wallflower sister who lives with them and gradually finds the strength to become an effectual mother to her young daughters (Grace Bea Lawrence and Alexandra Socha). Santino Fontana is winning and winsome as Kate’s eldest son Stanley, who means well but often lands himself in trouble.

Then there is Noah Robbins. The young actor is nineteen years old and making his professional acting debut, let alone first appearance on Broadway. As the alter ego for the playwright, his character guides the evening as an observational narrator, a testament to the uncanny writing ability that he and other family members espouse. (And by extension, Mr. Simon himself). It was especially touching to see his wisecracks and commentary rounded out by his coming of age, and the metaphoric end of his childhood. With the show’s closing, I only wish him the best of luck as he embarks on what could be a most promising acting career.

It is disheartening for the show to fold so prematurely. The plays that are attracting the stars these days tend to be anything with major movie stars. It’s unfair that the show should suffer the stigma of a 9 performance run, but that is unfortunately part of the unpredictable nature of show business. It just seems as though there wasn’t great audience interest in these seminal Neil Simon works. Cromer is establishing himself as a director of merit in the New York scene, and his work here is consistent, compelling and often moving. One of the things I was most impressed was how he and his actors found a way to tell a nostalgic story without getting lost in a sea of diabetes-inducing sentimentality.

After the curtain call of Brighton Beach Memoirs, I turned to Noah and commented how much I was looking forward to seeing the second play. I feel for the entire ensemble, particularly Mr. Robbins and his Broadway Bound counterpart Josh Grisetti, a fresh-faced off-Broadway up and comer who won a Theatre World Award for last season’s Enter Laughing. One made an auspicious Broadway debut, and the other was poised to do the same. Beg, borrow or steal to get a ticket to see this one before it closes tomorrow afternoon – you won’t want to have missed it.

The question has been brought up whether or not Mr. Simon is still relevant to Broadway audiences, as his works have been met with indifference in recent years. I think it’s still to early to write him off just yet – he’ll be represented this spring at the Broadway Theatre with the revival of Promises, Promises, for which he wrote the libretto.