Brighton Beach Memoirs
Location: The Nederlander Theatre
It's 1937. The Depression lingers and Hitler is doing terrible things to Jews in Germany. In the Jerome household money is tight, nerves are frayed, and hormones are raging. But this is Neil Simon and love and laughter will always win the day. In Brighton Beach Memoirs, shtick and sentiment alternate seamlessly in the hands of director David Cromer and his sincere, talented cast. 15-year old Eugene Morris Jerome (Noah Robbins), the playwright's alter ego, is as charming a narrator as you could hope for. It's a picturesque and often poignant picture of American family life. And while there's never a question as to whether the Jerome family will make it through, another question does arise: "Why?"
Perhaps a better question is "Why now?" It probably seemed like a sure-fire proposition. Brighton Beach Memoirs ran for over three years when it premiered on Broadway in 1983, making a star of the young Matthew Broderick. And though Simon hasn't had an unqualified hit on Broadway since Lost in Yonkers in 1991, he's still one of the most popular American playwrights. What better way to appeal to recession-battered New Yorkers than by waxing nostalgic with the Jerome clan as they face financial hardship with resilience and humor?
Less than a week after opening, Brighton Beach Memoirs has posted a closing notice. And its companion piece, Broadway Bound (set to play in repertoire with Brighton Beach Memoirs) will no longer get a run. Why isn't this one-time blockbuster resonating with contemporary audiences? My unoriginal conclusion is that in the wake of complex family dramas such as August: Osage County and Next To Normal, Simon's gauzy, idealized approach doesn't speak to us. What was appealingly gentle and innocent now seems clichéd and naïve. We may long for simplicity, but we will not be satisfied with the simplistic.
The play certainly isn't without its merits. The characters are well drawn and the construction a marvel of clarity and efficiency. Simon is a master craftsman of the stage; he sets you up with a laugh and immediately follows it with a beautifully touching moment. Between chuckles, I teared up numerous times while watching the play. That said, there isn't much dramatic tension. Simon's love letter to his family (and himself) feels too easy. There's never a doubt that all conflicts will be resolved. A natural (but admittedly unfair) comparison may be drawn with Thornton Wilder's 1937 play Our Town, which Cromer directed to great acclaim in Chicago and which is still running off-Broadway. Wilder pierces the illusion of romantic nostalgia for small town life with trenchant observations about death, despair and the fundamental difficulty of life. The result is a timeless classic. Brighton Beach Memoirs, by contrast, seems safe and cozy, too good to be true.
As a rule I find the use of a narrator to be detrimental. The Glass Menagerie notwithstanding, I can't think of many other great plays that employ a narrator. Eugene's narration, while amusing, puts us at an emotional distance from the people and events onstage. How closely can we empathize with a protagonist who steps in and out of his circumstances at will? The loss of identification affects the whole play.
Cromer has assembled a top-notch cast, and mines the material for all it's worth. Robbins is consistently engaging as Eugene. Jessica Hecht as Blanche and Dennis Boutsikaris as Jack create finely shaded portrayals. I was particularly impressed with Santino Fontana, who plays Eugene's volatile, charismatic older brother Stanley. In what could be a fatal case of miscasting, however, Laurie Metcalf in the central role of Kate Jerome fails to convince. She's obviously a team player and gives an energetic, almost athletic performance. I just don't believe her as the emotional center of this family.
I feel a bit churlish writing this review. The production's difficulties may have as much to do with the current financial malaise as with the play itself. I want to like a play that wears its heart on its sleeve, and that affirms the power of love and family. But I also want a play that addresses the ironies and complexities of modern life. Maybe that play is yet to be written. And maybe the producers who risked (and lost) so much on Brighton Beach Memoirs will find it and put it on. I can dream, can't I?
(Brighton Beach Memoirs plays at the Nederlander Theatre, 208 W. 41 st Street. The final performance plays Sunday November 1 at 3pm. Tickets are available at ticketmaster.com)