BWW Review: Coming of Age with Heart and Humor in BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS at Theater J
Featuring a cast of seasoned veteran actors working beside some of the DC-area's most gifted young performers, Theater J offers a sublime take on Neil Simon's semi-autobiographical look at growing up poor and horny in Depression era Brooklyn. Through the lens of nostalgia, Simon's 34 year-old play is like a valentine to a hard-scrabble upbringing sprinkled with humor, rather than the laugh riot of THE ODD COUPLE or the later RUMORS.
Using his own life as the kick-off, prolific comedy writer, playwright and screenwriter Simon entered a new phase of his career when he created the fictionalized version of himself - now dubbed Eugene Morris Jerome - in 1983 and had the kid address the audience directly as the a 15-year old baseball nut, who also happens to be girl crazy and a budding writer. Giving young Matthew Broderick (and a slew of replacements) a jump-start to their acting career, the first of the "Eugene trilogy," BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS focuses on the hoof-to-mouth, paycheck-scraping-by-to-next-paycheck lifestyle the Jerome family had to endure in the late 1930's, just on the brink of World War II.
Eugene is the host, narrator, and really the protagonist, observing and commenting in a wise-as-the-hills / wiseacre manner that foreshadows Simon's own quick with a one-liner style of writing. It is a gem of a character of a younger actor - often a 20-something actor who looks young. Not so at Theater J. Director Matt Torney and artistic director Adam Immerwahr chose to seek out young, age-appropriate talent for Eugene, and the other young characters in BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS. After looking at teenagers from all around the DMV community, through schools, synagogues, and acting programs, the directors hit upon a quartet of gifted actors who more than hold their own with veteran performers, Susan Rome, Michael Glenn, and Lise Bruneau as Kate and Jack (mother and father Jerome), and Aunt Blanche, respectively.
Cole Sitilides could have been born to play Eugene; he certainly plays the role as if he
had already headlined vaudeville and played the Palace. Sitilides leads BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS at Theater J with charm, impeccable timing, and has the audience in the palm of his hand from the first time we see him practicing baseball to inviting us into his little memory play. Believe me when I say, Sitilides has "it" and deserves to continue to grace stages here, there and everywhere into his dotage, should he so choose. Watch how is gives the audience insight into his family and their troubles, and easily slip back into the action, never losing the charming sparkle or Borscht-belt comic's sense of timing. The young actor also handles Eugene's dramatic arc, when he is at odds with his older brother Stanley or when his cousin Nora loses her lustre in his estimation.
Eli Pendry, as Stanley, also makes a strong showing as the older brother to whom Eugene either idolizes or despises, depending on the day. Pendry's role is more grounded, since Stanley has to work since leaving high school and has his own grown-up troubles, but the actor has truthful chemistry with Sitilides, especially in their scenes together. Simon's, no doubt, based the Eugene-Stanley talks on discusses with his own brother Danny back in the day; they are both poignant and hysterical, especially the talk of girls and the subject of - ahem!- masturbation.
As Eugene's female cousins, Nora and Laurie, Marie-Josee Bourelly and Sarah Kathryn Maki fit their roles and make them their own. As the wannabe Broadway dancer Nora, Bourelly handles her character's enthusiasm and teenage angst skillfully; Nora is usually at odds with her strict and worry-wort mother Blanche - played convincingly by Lise Bruneau. Nora is also the prime target of Eugene's growing feelings for girls. Sitilides memorably describes his cousin's lady parts as the "Golden Temple of the Himalayas."
As the sicklier and younger cousin Laurie, Maki makes the character's needy whining memorable without stepping over into annoying.
One of the key points in BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS is the importance of family, even in the toughest of times. Blanche and her daughters have been taken in by Jack and Kate Jerome after the death of Blanche's husband. It is tough on everyone crammed into their small apartment in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn, 1937, especially the grown-ups, making ends meet and making their place as much as normal home as possible. Kate - a strong performance by Susan Rome - and Jack - played with big-hearted style by Michael Glenn - do their best to keep their own family and the extended family together, fed and safe. At times, Neil Simon feels more like William Inge, as they face money problems and big decisions about life, love, health and the impending war in Europe.
Director Tatt Torney keeps the pacing of the play even - perhaps too even at times for a play clocking in a nearly three hours (including intermission). But the balance between pathos and humor stays even and pretty much on the mark for what could best be described as a domestic dramedy. The characters all seem at home in set designer Luciana Stecconi's detailed and period correct set, complete with the second floor bedroom split up for the boys and girls. Family photos, bric-a-brac, and other decorations give the intimate Goldman Theater stage a sublime setting for the play to unfold, aided by the precise lighting design by Colin K. Bills. Ivania Stack's period attire, from head to toe, completes the sense of nostalgia, giving the actors the authentic look of a time when even the poorest city dwellers took pride in their appearance.
The icing on the proverbial cake for this BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS is the dynamic sound design by James Bigbee Garver, providing not only a subtle background soundscape, but period flavor from popular tunes of the day that bathe the stage before and between the action in a warm blanket of songs that warm the heart and ears like the glow from a cathedral radio.
Theater J's BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS plays through May 7, 2017 and is a delightful trip down Neil Simon's memory lane.
Follow Jeff Walker on Twitter - @jeffwalker66
BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS - by Neil Simon - Directed by Matt Torney
Running time: 2 hours,40 minutes - 1 intermission.
BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS at Theater J runs April 5 - MAy 7, 2017.
For more information or tickets, click HEREEdlavitch DCJCC - 1529 Sixteenth Street, NW - Washington, DC 20036
Photo Credit: Teresa Wood / Theater J