Funny, poignant ‘Brighton Beach Memoirs’ offers strong start to NJT’s 2019-2020 season

Jane Paradise performs in ‘Brighton Beach Memoirs.’ Photo: Greg Lazerwitz

Robert A. Cohn, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Artistic director Edward Coffield made a wise choice in selecting “Brighton Beach Memoirs” to open the New Jewish Theatre season. Not only is this highly autobiographical play by Neil Simon typically a crowd-pleaser, but the NJT production in particular manages to nail just the right tone. It’s by turns laugh out loud funny and deeply poignant.

Directed with choreographic precision by Alan Knoll, the seven-member cast re-creates the tumult and chaos of the Jerome family, second-generation Jewish immigrants who struggle to preserve some normalcy in New York’s Brighton Beach in the years 1936 to 1939.

The action is narrated by Eugene Morris Jerome, portrayed with pitch-perfect timing by Jacob Flekier, who seems to have been born to play this role. Eugene hates his name, liver and cabbage dinners, and loves the New York Yankees and his big brother, Stanley. He also has a confusing crush on his cousin Nora (Summer Baer, in a strong performance). Spencer Kruse is superbly convincing as Stanley, who both inspires and mentors Eugene.

Eugene struggles to be a normal kid even though his hormones are raging, he’s obsessed with baseball and gets blamed for nearly everything that goes wrong in the multi-ring family circus. Normalcy is in short supply in the Jerome household, with Eugene’s hardworking dad, Jack Jerome, taking on too much work to make ends meet. 

As the father, Chuck Brinkley conveys the right balance between wisdom and concern over war clouds in Europe just before Hitler invades Poland to launch World War II and the Holocaust. Jack is the only member of the family who reads the newspaper and listens to the staticky radio.  He worries: What if his Polish Jewish relatives escape and turn up at the doorstep of their already overcrowded home?

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Eugene’s mom, Kate, is played powerfully by Jane Paradise. She speaks in a booming voice to be heard over the din of family members conversing. Her long-suffering sister Blanche (Laurie McConnell, in a stunning portrayal) has moved in with the Jeromes after the death of her husband.

Blanche suffers from asthma and severe vision issues. Her daughter Nora, the object of Eugene’s affection, seeks an off-ramp by trying to join the cast of a Broadway musical.  Her younger sister Laurie (Lydia Foss) is overprotected because of a heart flutter, which may or may not be serious.

Meanwhile the lonely Blanche accepts a date with an Irishman across the street whom Kate loathes as “those  people.” 

There is enough sibling rivalry among this family to fill several of Sigmund Freud’s notebooks.

A shoutout to the production team, including scenic designers Marjorie and Peter Spack, who make the Jerome household look ready to charge rent. 

“Brighton Beach Memoirs” has lots of Simon’s wisecracks and enough strong drama to secure his place among America’s greatest playwrights. The NJT production is terrific. Don’t miss it.