Neil Simon is one of the most well-known comic playwrights in Broadway history. He's particularly remembered for staple comedies like “The Odd Couple” and “Barefoot in the Park.”
In “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” Simon presents a fictionalized portrait of his family, set against the backdrop of the Great Depression and the early rumblings of World War II. It's a sentimental but frank dramedy.
The play opened on Broadway in 1983 and was followed by two sequels, “Biloxi Blues” (1984) and “Broadway Bound.” (1986)
The play is narrated by Simon's avatar, the “nearly 15-year-old” Eugene Jerome, who looks at the family's grown-up problems from an adolescent perspective. He notes that whenever adults discuss a death, they always whisper the names of diseases, lest God overhear and smite them as well.
Eugene's parents, Jack and Kate, struggle to make ends meet. The household includes Kate's sister Blanche and her two daughters. They moved in three years prior, following the death of Blanche's husband.
For PCPA's production, Jason Bolen has designed an impressive three-level set of the Jerome house. A “lawn” has sprouted near the edge of the stage. The aged wallpaper gives the house a sense of history.
Edges of neighboring houses loom on either side, and a telephone pole rises in the corner, giving that closed-in New York City feeling, which adds to the claustrophobic feeling of the crowded household.
Isaac Capp bursts with boyish energy as Eugene fantasizes about being a famous baseball player, (though he'll settle for being a writer.)
He's also entering puberty, and thinks he's fallen in love with his cousin Nora. He says he feels safe sharing such secrets with the audience, since he doesn't plan to publish them “until 30 years after my death.”
Nora (Romy Evans) is consumed with excitement for a Broadway dance audition. Her mother is worried she won't finish school if she pursues dancing, but defers the decision to Uncle Jack.
Nora's sister Laurie (Jana Price) has health problems. Eugene feels his mother and aunt give her preferential treatment, while blaming him for everything. He predicts he'll soon be blamed for the trouble brewing in Europe.
Eugene's big brother Stanley (Cameron Vargas) arrives home with troubles of his own. He stood up for a co-worker and his boss threatened to fire him.
As the family sits down to dinner, Stanley and Nora vie for Jack's attention. Meanwhile, Eugene struggles to avoid his mother's liver and cabbage.
“The tension in the air was so thick you could cut it with a knife,” Eugene observes. “Which is more than I could say for the liver.”
Eugene doesn't get all the laughs, though. The whole family is adept in the art of sarcasm.
At one point, Stanley asks if his mother if she'll be around later so they can have an important conversation.
“Where am I going,” she replies, “to a nightclub?”
Kitty Balay commands the stage as usual, playing stern-but-loving matriarch Kate. She and Polly Firestone Walker's Blanche share a strong sisterly bond.
Act One is packed with laughs. In Act Two, the conversations turn more serious. Jack's health takes a bad turn, and Don Stewart gives us a powerful sense of his stress and exhaustion.
I saw PCPA's previous production of this play in 1997, when I was a teen like Eugene. The trademark Simon wit is as funny as I remember. Under the direction of Roger DeLaurier, the cast has good comic timing and comes together as a family unit.
Performances run through March 1 at PCPA's Marian Theater, located on the Allan Hancock College campus, at 870 S. Bradley Rd. Tickets are $33.50 - $50 (student/child/senior discounts available) and can be purchased at the box office or through pcpa.org. For more information, visit the website or call (805) 922-8313.
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