You think you’ve got problems? Try being a too-smart-for-his-own-good Jewish kid in Brooklyn in 1937. Neil Simon’s largely autobiographical comedy follows his alter ego Eugene (Cole Sitilides) as he navigates puberty, his family and the faraway events of the world, which turn out to be not so very far away after all.
Largely regarded as one of Simon’s greatest works, this funny, funny play, though seemingly from from a kid’s point of view, explores deeper issues every family faces: guilt, neediness, and loneliness. The first act is Simon at his best: ricochet dialogue with an outsider’s viewpoint. But in the second act Simon achieves even more: the layers underneath the riposts, and the pain of honest words spoken by the people who know you inside out.
Theater J’s fine production, directed by Matt Torney, has its bounce and serve down pat. There isn’t a joke wasted, nor a line without its undertow. It’s helped by a well chosen ensemble: Susan Rome, as Eugene’s mother Kate, is the quintessential Jewish mother, with her matter of fact zingers and knitted brows: she’s the worrier of the family, and also its rock. As her widowed sister Blanche, Lise Bruneau is a woman clearly still in the throes of grief, and forever stuck in time until the two sisters’ shattering row free them both.
Michael Glenn, as Jack, Eugene’s father, has the often overlooked role in this play, but as the ultimate peacekeeper, his delivery is so quiet and so poignant that it’s all the stronger for it. Handsome Eli Pendry plays Stanley, the older brother who loses his way but finds the path back home, and the two brothers’ scenes are the richest in the production. Older brother learns from younger, younger becomes older, if only for a few moments- the shifting of power and maturity back and forth is well played by the two young actors.
The production is helped immeasurably by the fine set. Cramming an entire six room apartment (with stairs and exterior spaces, no less) into the small confines of Theater J’s stage is a tall order, but set designer Luciana Stecconi does it admirably. Adding to the realism are two foreshortened rooms at the back of the set; it gives the stage a richness and dimension that’s worthy of the script. Mention must be made of properties designer Timothy J Jones’ work. The flourishes of Depression-era curios and Friday night silver candlesticks on a back table are just wonderful. Cast your eyes and look at crocheted afghans, prints on the wall, and even the dishes used in the famous ‘eat your liver’ scene- everything is historically researched down to a T.
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closes May 7, 2017
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So much of the production is well done- for one, such superb period music by sound designer James Bigbee Carter. And the lighting (Colin K Bills,) which must be tricky given the shallowness of the stage, was as soft and mellow as a memory.
Even with the genius of Neil Simon, this is an easy play to get wrong. Characters can easily turn into stereotypes, and laughs can obliterate the serious message he wove into the piece. But Torney times things just right: there are hills and valleys in this production, and not a moment misplaced or strung along.
One last thing: this is also one of those plays where the casting of the lead is integral to the success of the whole production. Get a Eugene who doesn’t understand the nuances or plays it just for laughs, and you’re sunk. But Cole Sitilides as Eugene is just about perfect: he’s like an old Borscht Belt comedian when it comes to delivering a line and connecting with the audience, but, young though he is, he’s also quite a fine actor: there’s genuine feeling behind the laughter.
Just like that old Borscht Belt shtick: “I laughed, then I cried, then I laughed again because I cried.”
Brighton Beach Memoirs by Neil Simon . Director: Matt Torney . Cast: Cole Sitilides as Eugene, Lise Bruneau as Blanche; Susan Rome as Kate; Sarah Kathryn Maki as Laurie; Marie-Josee Bourelly as Nora; Eli Pendry as Stanley; Michael Glenn as Jack . Set Designer: Luciana Stecconi . Lighting Design: Colin K Bills . Sound Designer: James Bigbee Garver . Properties Designer: Timothy J Jones . Costume Designer: Ivana Stack . Dialect/Vocal Coach: Nancy Krebs . Stage Manager: Jeannette L Buck . Produced by Theater J . Reviewed by Jill Kyle-Keith.