Brighton Beach Memoirs @ The New Jewish Theatre

When Neal SimonÕs comedies were the staple
of American stage, the New Jewish Theatre shunned them. IÕm glad the ban has been lifted. The company is opening its 21st season with
ÒBrighton Beach Memoirs,Ó the first chapter of SimonÕs trilogy about an alter ego named
Eugene Morris Jerome. This splendid production increased my admiration
for the play because the staging is so firmly grounded in the reality of the play. Under Alan KnollÕs direction, the performances
are consistently about building convincing characters, not just bringing out humor. The serious scenes are every bit as engaging
as the comic ones, and the transitions between them are beautifully managed. The action takes place in the Brooklyn home
of the financially strapped Jerome family in 1937. The nearly 15-year-old Eugene tells the story. He is passionate about writing, baseball,
and sex, not necessarily in that order. EugeneÕs oversized emotions seem exactly
the right size in Jacob FlekierÕs absorbing performance. Jane Paradise is a formidable presence as
EugeneÕs mother, Kate, whose anger starts out high but still has room to grow in a climactic
confrontation with her younger sister, Blanche, a widow who, after her husbandÕs death, has
lived in KateÕs home. The sweetness of Laurie McConnellÕs Blanche
does not keep Kate from resenting the sacrifices she has made for Blanche. Chuck Brinkley captures the decency and wisdom
of EugeneÕs weary father, Jack, who has to work two jobs to feed his extended family. Spencer Kruse brings exactly the right mixture
of maturity and immaturity to Stanley, the older brother Eugene idolizes. Summer Baer fully conveys the frustration
of BlancheÕs daughter, Nora, when her mother balks at allowing Nora to pursue an opportunity
in show business that would require Nora to drop out of school. BlancheÕs younger daughter, Laurie, has become
accustomed to using a physical infirmity to her advantage. Lydia Mae Foss captures LaurieÕs sense of
privilege. The unusually large two-level set creates
an astonishingly realistic setting for the action. Because this design by Margery and Peter Spack
is situated in a corner, thereÕs a place for a shrewdly used back door in addition
the usual one in front. Michele Friedman SilerÕs costumes, Katie
OrrÕs props, Zoe Sullivan sound, and Michael SullivanÕs lighting add to the realism. The conflicts near the end of the play are
so intense that it easily could have ended with irretrievably broken relationships. But thatÕs not how Neil Simon operated. He found a convincing way to walk the characters
back from the precipice and let the audience leave the theater happy, very happy in the
current staging.

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