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BWW Reviews: EPAC Presents Warm, Funny BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS

Life is hard enough without your family to mess it up for you - but what would you do without your family? Neil Simon, the arbiter for three decades of all that was funny in America, after milking the humor of apartment mates (THE ODD COUPLE), hotels (PLAZA SUITE) and the like, finally turned to the most fertile source of humor in anyone's life - their family. In his case, he turned to his own, which needed little help to become heartwarmingly amusing - after all, it had produced him.

The first of Simon's semi-autobiographical plays, last revived on Broadway as recently as 2009 (with Laurie Metcalf and Jessica Hecht as the loving/warring adult sisters Kate and Blanche), is BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS. The pseudo-story of the Simon family, now known as the Jeromes, is told by the young, intelligent Eugene Jerome, would-be author, to his appreciative audience, and Eugene tells it, with all the aplomb required of a very young future success, on the Ephrata Performing Arts Center stage, directed by Michael Swanson (last seen directing at EPAC in EQUUS).

Eugene, played by Brian Soutner, is a fine narrator of truly important things - the World Series, in which he is pitching, the evils of the second worst male name in history, and his newly discovered goal of seeing a naked girl. Both assisting and hindering those plans is his brother Stanley (played by Quinn Corcoran, last seen at EPAC in SPRING AWAKENING). They live with their parents, Jack (EPAC veteran Rob Adams) and Kate (Robin Payne, another veteran EPAC performer) and with their widowed aunt Blanche (Cynthia Charles) and her daughters Laurie (Olivia Brown) and the now-very-much-developing Nora (Morgan Konopelski, new to EPAC but with some considerable experience under her high-school-junior belt).

The fifteen-year-old Eugene's goal in life is to be a baseball player... or a writer... but his intermediate goal is to see a naked girl, especially cousin Nora, with whom he's suddenly in lust. But there are obstacles - Stanley's current job crisis, caused by his principles and the boss's offense to an African-American employee; young cousin Laurie's allegedly poor health; his father's concern with Hitler and a possible war; and the awful Irish neighbors across the street. At least, his mother thinks they're awful, simply because they're Irish; his aunt, who's had time to meet them finds them perfectly nice. (It's a sad and historically accurate reminder that in the 1930's in New York, ethnic prejudice among Jews, Irish, and Italians was hardly uncommon and resulted in frequent difficulties.)

Soutner is an outstanding Eugene, his world skewed by his age and by his idealization of his brother, whose feet may have more clay composition than Eugene suspects. Corcoran's Stanley is a very fine portrayal of a young man facing his first job crisis and his first moral crisis, with no sure way of deciding what to do. Konopeleski is more than attractive enough to be believable in her personal crisis - should she finish school or pursue a possible Broadway opportunity? And Adams as Jack Jerome, exhausted father and provider, is completely credible as the burdened family font of all wisdom; his scenes attempting to advise his niece on her dilemma, and his son Stanley on his own foibles, are genuine and touching. If only he were equally believably Jewish - the Yiddishkeit isn't quite there, though everything else is. But even though Eugene knows that he is the center of his own universe, with all of these matters happening around his epicenter, the real family dynamic is the one between Kate and Blanche, as Payne and Charles, with disarming honesty, show what a real family feud looks like. That the feud begins with the Irish neighbors and spills over to encompass every grudge of their entire lives is all too realistic, as Kate recalls every big-sister moment when she had to give way to her prettier younger sister and feels herself the historic loser in the life sweepstakes.

That the sudden mess of everyone's lives is redeemable, and that ice cream is, at least to Eugene, the solution to all tragedy, is proof of Simon's finger on the pulse of American humor. Even the happy ending has its own crisis, but it's one that the family, finally reunited, believes it can tackle together - the realistic happy ending to a series of family problems, not the "perfect" one.

It's a lovely production, more than effective, and well worth the trip to EPAC to see it. At EPAC, at the Sharadin-Bigler Theatre, through June 29. Call 717-733-7966, or visit www.ephrataperformingartscenter.com for tickets.

Picture credit: EPAC


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