Review: ‘Brighton Beach Memoirs’ at Theater J

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Though it was well-established since the 1950s that Neil Simon was a master humorist and gifted comic writer, it wasn’t quite revealed until 1983 when Brighton Beach Memoirs premiered on Broadway that Simon could robustly tug the heart strings, as well. Lucky for DC theatergoers, Theater J is currently headlining the Tony Award-winning production, which features four extraordinarily-talented local teen actors, under Matt Torney’s keen direction, who capture the authenticity of Simon’s semi-autobiographical play, the first of his “Eugene trilogy” (followed by Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound).

Susan Rome and Cole Sitilides. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Set in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn, the play takes place in 1937, a year in which two challenging chapters of American history converge – the waning of the Great Depression and the heightening of hostilities that would culminate in World War II.

Exquisitely staged on a two-tier set (diligently designed by Luciana Stecconi, accentuated by Colin K. Bills’ lighting), central character and narrator Eugene Morris Jerome, winningly portrayed by an engagingly-snarky Cole Sitilides, is a precocious Polish-Jewish American 15-year-old who experiences puberty, sexual awakening and self-identity as he forays to comprehend his family and life in greater depth.

Brighton Beach Memoirs is Neil Simon at his absolute best,” says Theater J Artistic Director Adam Immerwahr. “It’s a joyful play, full of nostalgia, and is sure to bring a smile to every face. It’s a perfect escape from today’s never-ending new cycle, a tender and delightful work by one of our country’s national treasures.”

The cast of Brighton Beach Memoirs. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Loosely based on Simon’s life, wise-cracking Eugene, in the midst of dreaming of baseball and girls, is transitioning from the simplicity of childhood to the complexities of adulthood encompassed by his dynamic family members: formidably level-headed mother (grippingly rendered by Susan Rome), dedicatedly overworked father (credibly played by Michael Glenn), well-intentioned young adult brother (Eli Pendry), delicate widowed aunt (Lise Bruneau), and two teenage cousins (Marie-Josée Bourelly as eldest cousin Nora, and Sarah Kathryn Makl as cousin Laurie). Although the close living arrangement is seemingly amicable, drama builds when each family member faces new obstacles. (“If you didn’t have a problem, you wouldn’t be living here,” quips father Jack Jerome, depicted with wistful benevolence by Glenn).

Deeply-moving and hilariously-entertaining, Theater J’s production of Brighton Beach Memoirs is truly top-rate with a tremendously electrifying ensemble who strike a splendid balance of delivering riveting scenes interspersed with liberating laugh out loud clashes.

Running Time: Approximately two hours and 30 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

 Brighton Beach Memoirs plays through May 7, 2017, at Theater J – The Edlavitch DCJCC’s Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater – 1529 16th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 777-3210, or purchase them online.

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