The Rep’s ‘Brighton Beach Memoirs’ reveals Simon’s genius for dramedy

The Rep performs ‘Brighton Beach Memoirs’ through Sept. 30. Photos:  Jerry Naunheim Jr.

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

With its emotionally complex production of Neil Simon’s autobiographical play “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” the Repertory Theatre helps prove that Simon is more than just a highly successful playwright who has a gift of making audiences roar at nonstop one-liners.  Simon, who in 1991 received the Pulitzer Prize in drama for “Lost in Yonkers,” has taken his rightful place among the great dramatists in American theatrical history.  

“Brighton Beach Memoirs,” which hit Broadway in 1983, was the first of Neil Simon’s trilogy of autobiographical “B” plays, the others being “Biloxi Blues” (1985) about his military service and “Broadway Bound” (1986), based on Simon’s amazing career as a neophyte comedy writer in the halcyon days of early television.  Of the three, “Brighton Beach” is the most memorable and emotionally satisfying, working both as a laugh-out-loud comedy—and as a serious, often profound, drama.

Under the skilled and seasoned direction of Steven Woolf, artistic director of the Rep, there is not a single weak performance among the cast, led by the stunningly engaging and totally believable Ryan DeLuca as the Simon-based protagonist, Eugene Morris Jerome. At age 15, Eugene is the younger of two sons in what Woolf calls a “somewhat dysfunctional family” living in the Brighton Beach Section of Brooklyn in 1937. Christianne Tisdale is superb as Eugene’s strong-willed and ultra-stressed mom, Kate (Lori Wilner, in a textured performance).

Kate’s sister, Blanche (Christianne Tisdale) is living in the family’s already crowded Brooklyn home, along with her two daughters, Laurie (Jamey Jacobs Powell), who is smothered with over-protection because she has a “fluttering heart” and Nora (Aly Viny), who wants to audition for a Broadway show even if it means dropping out of high school. Blanche was widowed when her husband suddenly died at age 36, and finds herself ill prepared to provide parental advice and support for her daughters.

As patriarch of this extended family, Jack Jerome (a terrific portrayal by Adam Heller) is literally working himself to death. He staggers home nightly from multiple jobs in the depths of the Depression and is deeply concerned not only over financial hardships but also the war clouds gathering over Europe as Adolf Hitler sets the stage for the Holocaust.

Meanwhile Eugene, gifted with both a keen intellect (he makes nearly all A’s in school) and an ironic sense of humor, serves as an active participant in the mishegas of his family circus as well as the audience’s narrator.  He looks to his older brother Stanley (a well-cast Michael Curran-Dorsano) as a source of both stability and advice on Eugene’s twin passions of 1930s baseball and his sudden interest in girls, especially his cousin Nora, confessing his longing to see her breasts for “just two seconds.”

Eugene is often seen talking directly to the audience, a device used by Simon’s former comedy writing colleague Woody Allen.  He tells of his dread of the upcoming family dinner of liver and cooked cabbage, which he calls “Medieval Jewish torture.”  Like any other normal 15-year-old kid of any era, Eugene seeks to escape from the constant weight of his pressure-cooker family by doing his 1930s version of “fantasy baseball,” broadcasting his own game, playing the parts of all the players and annoying his parents and aunt with hurling the baseball against the outside wall with an ever louder thwack.

In the course of its two acts, “Brighton Beach Memoirs” gives each character his or her due.  Eugene finds an outlet for his talents by keeping a journal of the craziness he observes in his crowded household.  His mom Kate struggles mightily to keep the volatile household together, trying without total success to contain her rage at the virtual poverty in which they live.  “I serve liver because I can’t afford to buy steak!” she rails at her long-suffering husband.  Jack himself wants desperately to help the plight of the Jews in Europe who, by 1937, know they face certain death if they cannot escape from places like Poland, where he has numerous cousins.   Blanche struggles to break out of her cocoon of grief and get on with life without her dead husband.  Stanley learns to balance standing up for his principles without giving in to impulsiveness and weakness.  Laurie and Nora grapple with the limitations placed on their lives by illness and circumstance.

“Brighton Beach Memoirs” is Simon’s most explicitly “Jewish” play.  Jack frequently talks about trying to attend “temple” more often.  He observes, reading the grim daily news in the New York Times that “being a Jew means that you have cousins living somewhere who are in grave danger.”  Kate reflects some learned prejudice against all non-Jews handed down from her own parents who escaped the Cossacks and pogroms in Russia.  To Kate, the Irish family across the street are “Cossacks,” even though the woman of that household can write a brilliant and sensitive letter.

All of the production details are picture perfect, and every one of the Brooklyn accents sound absolutely authentic and true to the period of the play. Kudos also go to a terrific, bi-level set by Michael Ganio, who manages to re-create the authentic ambience of a lived-in middle-class home in the 1930s, including lots of little touches such as a mezuzah on the doorpost.

“Brighton Beach Memoirs” is the first time in 46 seasons that the Rep has staged a Neil Simon play. Hopefully, given the success of this outstanding production, we won’t have to wait 46 more.