Virginia Rep’s ‘Brighton Beach Memoirs,’ takes the Jew out of Brooklyn
Brighton Beach Memoirs is one of Neil Simon’s best and most personal scripts. Semi-autobiographical, it features a Jewish family living in Brooklyn in the late 1930’s just before the war (and the Holocaust).
How well does the Brooklyn Jewish experience play in the Land of Cotton? Based on this production, we’ll never know.
I have great respect for all of the talent involved in this Virginia Rep production. The designers excel. The acting is very good. It is a heartwarming story of a family that faces personal crises in the period leading up to WWII.
But it does not capture the Brooklyn Jewish experience of Neil Simon’s youth. Director Steve Perigard settles on half measures. He casts a great Eugene and he puts a mezuzah over the screen porch door. Otherwise, this family could be The Waltons.
The family features 15-year-old Eugene Morris Jerome, a funny, New York Yankees fanatic who wants to be a writer (the Simon character). Eugene serves as the narrator, as if the play were one of his stories. His commentary contains some of Simon’s funniest lines such as:
“I should have been Italian. All great baseball players are Italian. My mother makes spaghetti with ketchup, what chance do I have?”
The Jerome household consists of Eugene, his mother Kate, his father Jack, his brother Stanley, his Aunt Blanche with her two daughters Nora and Laurie.
The plot concerns the day to day trials and tribulations of seven people sharing a small home in post-Depression, pre-war Brooklyn by the ocean. It also spends some time dramatizing the sexual awakenings of Eugene Morris Jerome.
Tyler Stevens plays Eugene Morris Jerome and he is almost enough to keep it real.
Mr. Stevens may not be Jewish, (I haven’t seen him at the meetings) but he hits the inflections and rhythms of the Catskills Comic timing that Simon perfected. He is a graceful, natural actor who digs deep to find the kid he was not that long ago.
By allowing Eugene to lift the heavy wood and provide all the ethnic tone, his scenes soar. We see the world from his personal point of view: sarcastic and put upon. This approach makes the scenes he has with his brother stronger and more poignant and among the best moments of the performance.
Trevor Craft, as his brother Stanley, balances his performance perfectly against Stevens’ Eugene. They’re both proud products of Theatre VCU. Their chemistry is natural. Craft is a fine actor and gives Stanley a decency that makes you root for him when he screws up. And Stanley screwing up is a lot of what the play is about.
Together Stevens and Craft do the brother thing as well as we’ve seen. When they embrace as Stanley tells Eugene he’s moving out, you want to cry. You do cry.
Big city Jewish households, like most ethnic households, are matriarchies. Everyone turns over the check to Momma. She controls the money. She plans the meals. She keeps the house and the family together. She is usually the disciplinarian.
In this Jerome home, Jill Bari Steinberg relaxes the overtly strident Lainie Kazan type Jewish mother often seen. Her Kate is more loving and gentle, less traditionally over-wrought. It’s a less familiar model of a Brooklyn Jewish mother and one, perhaps more palatable for Richmond audiences.
The difference is that Kate without the fire becomes secondary. We miss the crack of the whip which sends Eugene running for butter. We miss the nagging yell that Eugene complains about so often. We miss the emotionally stunted Kate who, up till now, played the martyr and never told her sister what she really thought.
Sara Heifeitz does a fine job as Blanche, Kate’s insecure widowed sister. Also less showy, her anxiety is modulated down to meet the rhythms of Ms. Steinberg’s Kate.
The decision to go low wattage with these women changes everything.
The father Jack, played by Andy Boothby is already low wattage. Tired then sick, like most Jewish men who live with strong Jewish women, Simon writes him as a peace maker, mostly quiet until he needs to put his foot down.
The lack of, what we’ll call “ethnic emotionalism” amongst the adults affects the minor story, leaving it sluggish. It concerns Blanche’s older daughter Nora who wants to leave school to be a showgirl on Broadway.
Andrew Boothby doesn’t find a real hook to Jack. He’s a nice and steady father and unremarkable. Mr. Boothby is also a bit older than Jack should be and not very Jewish.
Same with lovely Meg Carnahan. She commits to her scene work very well but she’s about as Jewish as Irish coffee. As a matter of fact, she is every Jewish boy’s shicksa dream.
The role of Laurie is Simon’s most unspecific part. Stereotypically, the sick child that a Jewish Momma can fuss over and spoon feed chicken soup to, she has no interesting storyline. Mr. Perigard and young Molly Nugent haven’t found a way to make the role anything more.
Virginia Rep has the finest designers in town.
Terrie Powers set is gorgeous but crowded. Maybe too gorgeous for the paycheck to paycheck Jeromes. The play calls for an upstairs with two bedrooms. Keeping the bedrooms on approximately the same plane as the downstairs (there is slight elevation of a few steps and a neat hallway to the bedrooms you don’t see) makes it looked cramped. Cramped can work because too many people live in the house but the elevation is so slight that it doesn’t look like a two story house.
Sue Griffin gives great clothes. Everyone looks the part and the age and the style and the period (although I don’t think Eugene’s Yankee hat was authentic 1937, I couldn’t get close enough). Zack Townsend did a nice job lighting the areas so they looked less crowded.
When we do Shakespeare we try to stay in his period, in his time and place. When we do West Side Story we don’t place it in Iowa. Certain genres have specific ethnic requirements.
This production was nowhere near Brighton Beach. The cast didn’t even strive for consistency for any kind of Brooklyn accent. The Waltons were really from Virginia. This is more like Walton Mountain Memories.
You find yourself smiling. You smile because the complications are adorable and you are touched.September 16, 2016
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