Are there any award nominators out there? Is so, get down to Act II Playhouse. This superb production of Brighton Beach Memoirs deserves a bundle of them.
Much of the production’s success is, of course, due to the brilliance of Neil Simon’s play. Originally premiered in 1983, it now joins the American classics that inspired it, Ah, Wilderness! and Look Homeward, Angel, as a true classic in its own right.
Simon was then known as Broadway’s most successful “yuck-master.” For two decades, his ability to string hilarious one-liners into a simple plot kept audiences laughing and the money rolling in. Barefoot in the Park or The Star-Spangled Girl may not be great plays, but they are funny and well-constructed. Even his supposedly serious efforts, such as The Gingerbread Lady or The Prisoner of Second Avenue, seemed to place the jokes over the characters.
Then came Brighton Beach Memoirs – and characterization reigned. There were still funny lines, as when narrator Eugene says:
It was a tense moment for everybody. I love tense moments. Especially when I am not the one they’re all tense about.
The story is dominated by the Great Depression. Jobs are scarce, and those lucky enough to have even menial employment are eternally grateful. Families who lose their homes must move in with relatives, resulting in too many people crammed into small spaces. Education is seen as the great godsend that will allow the children to earn a better life in the future. And since it is 1937, these families of second generation Polish immigrants worry about their relatives in the old country.
Jack, the father (Peter Bisgaier), holds the family together by working two demanding, stultifying jobs. But he loses one, and worries that he will be unable to feed the seven people who depend on him. He is the smartest man in the room and is still able to dispense wisdom through his exhaustion. His sudden illness sets the conflicts of the second act in motion. Bisgaier superbly embodies all of this, from his first weary entrance to a rare moment of joy late in the show.
Kate, the mother (Mary Elazabeth Scallen), holds the house together. She is frequently loud, inconsiderate, racist (she calls all gentiles “Cossacks”), but she is the loving center of the family. Scallen is especially powerful in the moment when she lets herself go and blasts the family with a taste of their own selfishness. Somehow she makes Kate a lovable character whose subtext conveys many moving complexities.
Eugene, the 15-year-old youngest son (DJ Gleason), holds the play together. He wittily narrates and interrupts the play as he sees fit to confess his goals: becoming a writer, playing professional baseball, and seeing a naked girl (not necessarily in that order). Eugene’s growth, cheerfulness and youthful frustrations are all stunningly conveyed by Gleason, whose ability to winningly relate to both the family and the audience earns the loudest ovations of the night.
Each character is give a “big moment” where the laughing through tears becomes unbearable. These breakdowns and confessions are the stuff of memorable, award-winning performances, and under the subtle direction of Bill Roudebush, the entire ensemble wins. These include Jonathan Silver as Stanley, Eugene’s comically unwilling teacher/brother who has problems of his own. Sister Blanche (Juliana Zinkel) is humiliated to accept charity from her family, but heroically does so to raise her two daughters: the budding Norah (Katie Stahl) Eugene’s’ youthful sex fantasy, and Laurie (Eileen Cella), the supposedly ill youngest one. When walking to deliver a glass of water she quips, “I had to chop the ice. I’m all out of breath.” Every moment of the evening throbs with tension and humor.
Set Designer Dick Durossette effectively deals with the small space at Act II that does not allow for the two-level setting Simon dictates. (Take notice of the period-accurate wallpaper.) Prop Master Amanda Coffin crams the tiny rooms with accurate decorations, noticeably the photos of relatives in the old country, and the huge radio that serves as access to the outside world. Lighting designer James Leitner has many attractive tricks up his sleeve for the many different scenes, while Jennifer Povish’s costumes effective evoke the era and the hardship of the family.
Simon’s purpose was the same as O’Neill’s in Ah, Wilderness!: a comical/serious but somewhat rosy vision of a difficult childhood. The Act II Playhouse obviously knows it has a jewel as the run has already been extended. It is not to be missed.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with an intermission.