Arlington — “This is a family. The world doesn’t survive without families.”
Brighton Beach Memoirs is a Neil Simon play—so of course there are laughs, and plenty of them. But there’s so much more in Theatre Arlington’s well-acted revival of Simon’s 1983 gem, where laughter shares the stage with other emotions—love, anger, exhaustion, resentment, money stress—that color the lives of real people in real families. The Jacob Jerome clan of Brooklyn, New York (circa 1937) knows all about those feelings, and spending an evening or two with them brings us to laughter and tears and laughter again—just as Simon wanted.
Part of what sells this story—and makes his memory play feel more honest than gimmicky—is that our live-wire narrator, the 15-year-old Eugene Morris Jerome (Eric Berg), is experiencing that roller coaster of rushing, shifting emotion right before our eyes. He’s living twice, in a way: performing in his own minute-by-minute “dramedy”—and writing it down for future use in his life as a Great Writer. One minute it’s lust, the next laughter, followed by a burst of fear for an older brother he adores.
And we follow, eager to see what happens next. One moment we’re chuckling over Eugene’s eager, confused attempts to sort out his feelings about girls and various body parts (his & hers edition). In the next we’re watching two sisters finally say out loud what’s been simmering for 25 years, or brothers coming embarrassingly close to admitting how much they love and need each other. Kudos to a fine cast and director Megan Haratine (in her TA directorial debut) for the balance and heart achieved—and with some pretty convincing Brooklyn accents, yet.
Berg’s cartoon-character voice locates young Eugene on the comic side of the street, but his unabashed goofiness somehow increases our sympathy for the kid when times at home get tough. As the household’s only errand boy—younger cousin Laurie (Brooklyn Ramey-Halkyard) has “a kind of a fluttah” in her heart—his budding-playwright musings are constantly interrupted by a call of “Yoo-GENE!” and a quick run to the corner store. Life is full of pain: there’s liver for dinner, unrequited passion for older cousin Nora (Olivia Cinquepalmi), and never, ever enough money. Berg is equally engaging as the rat-a-tat jokester and the smart kid who’s learning a lot from watching the hard-pressed grownups around him.
Kevin Brown’s homey two-story set design (with nice touches from scenic artist Angie Glover), Robin Dotson’s period props, and Bryan Stevenson’s warm lights combine to sustain the illusion of time gone by, an immersive sense that we’re peeking into a place our grandparents (or great-grands) might have known. Sharon Kaye Miller’s costumes speak not just about the time period, but the characters too: Eugene’s knickers and sweater vest are a kid’s outfit he’s rapidly outgrowing physically and emotionally, and mother Kate (Jennifer Engler) wears a plain dress, apron and black sensible shoes that tell us a lot about her steady, un-fussy commitment to the family.
It says something good about an ensemble if it’s easier to talk about performances in plural, not singular—because the play comes to life in encounters between two, three, or four actors at a time. As parents Kate and Jack Jerome, Engler and Seth Johnston make a compelling duo. She is perpetually on the edge of anger; he’s constantly tired from working two or three jobs to keep this two-family household afloat. But in shared glances, shrugged shoulders, a quick pat on the back, they keep enough humor in the daily mix to stay sane—and on their feet. Johnston is touching in a scene with older son Stanley (Seth Nelson), who stood up for a “colored man” at work and might lose his job. “What you did was courageous,” Jack says, “and yet…can this family afford principles right now?” In one sentence, we hear the good guy that he is, and the toll the Great Depression has taken on his spirit.
“Worriers generally marry fainters,” says Kate, angsting about her worn-to-the-bone husband. (Jack’s going to collapse; it’s just a question of time.) Eugene, being young, thinks his mother is “mad at the whole world.” He’ll know better one day: Kate is gruff and sharp, on guard for threats to her messy family and her tidy home—but it’s how she shows love. Engler walks a lovely line with her character, always letting us see through to the strong, caring woman Kate is.
Her live-in widowed sister Blanche (Melanie Mason) at first glance seems a bit of a noodle, limp and easily wound up by life. But her soft words and self-deprecating ways shouldn’t fool us; Blanche arguably is the character who grows and changes most in this play, moving from dependent to independent and self-aware. At the start, we see her asking Jack to make decisions for her girls, but Blanche begins standing up for herself when Kate criticizes her interest in an Irish bachelor (“hooligans” all, says Kate). The quarrel she and Kate have late in the play doesn’t feel contrived at all; it’s important, and true—and both actresses have the power to pull at our hearts.
As Blanche’s older daughter, Cinquepalmi’s Nora is more than the dream Eugene loves from afar—she’s a determined, ambitious young woman, yet still enough of a girl to want a mother’s loving arms. Ramey-Halkyard is amusing as the little sister whose health woes (Eugene views them suspiciously) take up much of Blanche’s time and concern.
Nelson and Berg make good use of some of the play’s best scenes, duets for the Jerome brothers that take them up and down the emotional scale. They laugh, they cry, they fight—and they worry like heck about each other. Nelson and Johnston are memorable in father-son encounters, too, as Jack begins to see Stanley as the man he taught him to be.
Simon cleverly widens his lens by giving us hints of the flawed world beyond this Brooklyn home. We hear them in Kate’s judgments of the neighbors she calls “those people,” in the racial prejudice Stanley objects to at work, and perhaps above all, in the Jerome family’s letters from Europe, where Polish cousins are trying desperately to escape the Nazis before it’s too late. And here again Simon plays light against dark, as he does all the way through Brighton Beach: comedy’s the winner if the cousins get out (and pile in on the already crowded Jeromes!)—but tragedy, forever lurking in the wings, is all too possible if they don’t.
Whatever happens, this family seems to be made of the stuff that endures—love, interdependence, and the good sense to laugh at life when they can. It’s a Simon-ized formula that’s made sense for generations of audiences, and still makes sense today.
Laugh out loud…and if it hurts, laugh some more.