Brighton Beach Memoirs @ Nederlander Theatre, New York

cast list
Dennis Boutsikaris, Santino Fontana, Jessica Hecht, Gracie Bea Lawrence, Laurie Metcalf, Noah Robbins, Alexandra Socha

directed by
David Cromer
Already prematurely closed, there’s a lesson to be learned in observing the latest Broadway production of Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs, which was to have run as part of a repertory event entitled The Neil Simon Plays, alongside another Simon play, Broadway Bound. When it comes to Broadway, you gotta get a gimmick, and sadly, despite its solid cast and direction, Brighton didn’t have one.

Focusing on the Jerome Family in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, the play, a heartwarming paean to the time between the world wars, chronicles the coming-of-age of young Eugene Morris Jerome, a baseball-loving, gawky young Jewish boy whose current fascinations are baseball and breasts.
A strong cast is headed up by Laurie Metcalf as steely, aproned matriarch Kate Jerome and Noah Robbins, making an impressively comic Broadway debut seeming like a young Woody Allen. Effective in other roles are Jessica Hecht as Blanche Morton, Kate’s live-in, nasal-voiced, out-of-work, widow sister, and Santino Fontana, who is commanding and youthful as Stanley Jerome, Eugene’s wayward brother whose life seems to have directed him toward work rather than education.

The conflicts within the play arise when characters aim to strike out on their own. When Blanche’s daughter Nora, the object of Eugene’s desire, wants to make it as a Broadway hoofer and when Stanley considers running away to join the army, the family begins to come apart at the seams as previously withheld feelings come pouring out.

The problem with Simon’s play lies in its passivity. As a central character, Eugene, who serves as a kind of narrator, is entirely too passive, enacting barely any of action contained within the play. Rather, he’s subject to the whims of the rest of the family, leaving an audience wanting to know more about just what makes him tick.

Additionally, by the play’s end, all of its loose ends seem tied up (with one rather large exception) in a way that gives an audience little to chew on. Much like a comforting television movie, Simon leaves us feeling as if we’ve witnessed a solidly written play but one that provides almost too many answers rather than not enough.

Impressive sets by John Lee Beatty and deeply felt, well-paced direction by David Cromer, should have made Brighton Beach Memoirs a success if only for the talent on display. There are moments of real heartbreaking truth contained within Simon’s somewhat messy family dramedy. Unfortunately, audiences didn’t seem to be chomping at the bit to see something without much bite, an element undeniably lacking here though one questions whether edginess, as a whole, makes for better theatre.

I left Brighton Beach Memoirs intrigued about seeing Broadway Bound, the second of the Simon plays that was to have eventually played in repertory at the Nederlander Theatre. Unfortunately that production has been canceled. It’s not a surprise really. There are no stars in either of Neil Simon’s semi-autobiographical forays into workaday storytelling. Stylistically, Brighton Beach seemed like a throwback – a solid, endearing, satisfying one, but one that, while worth seeing, failed – thematically at least – to excite. And without a star, unfortunately that’s a hard show to sell.

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