A Teen Grows in Brooklyn
Brighton Beach Memoirs
Written by Neil Simon
Directed by Andrew Hill and Dan Balsam
At the Mather House TV Room
NEIL Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs is a bittersweet comedy about a Jewish family, based loosely on Simon's own, living in Depression-era Brooklyn. It can be a very enjoyable and heart-wrenching play, but the current Mather House production doesn't live up to the script's potential.
The play stars Daniel O'Keefe as Eugene, the 15-year-old Simon surrogate whose writings at this age, we are led to believe, eventually become the play itself. Brighton hinges on Eugene, his thoughts and his interactions with other characters, and O'Keefe plays the pubescent Eugene admirably, lending believability to a role which requires that his paramount interest be seeing naked breasts. O'Keefe's beady-eyed facial expressions and air of child-like surprise throughout the show are what make the play worth seeing.
Because this play attempts to depict the essence of a very human family, though, every actor's portrayal is significant. And it is here that Brighton falls short. While Josh Frost does have his good moments as Eugene's brother Stanley, he usually looks like an actor acting. His gesticulations often seem forced and unnatural. Likewise, Robert Herzstein, who plays the boys' father Jack, often seems to be merely saying the lines without inhabiting his character. His demeanor as an authority figure is sometimes effective, but it often seems as though Herzstein himself is not convinced of his own portrayal.
Jack and Stanley have two father-son talks--one regarding Stanley's near loss of a job, and one regarding Stanley's gambling away his salary. Admittedly, the latter is a weak moment in the script, but the slow, word-minced, unemotional exchange between Frost and Herzstein reflects neither the son's penitence and rededication to the family nor the father's pervading concern about his overseas relatives and the possibility that they might be coming to live in his already cramped quarters.
Rounding out this side of the family is Reid Cottingham as Kate, Eugene's loving, efficient, over-stressed mother. Cottingham is very effective. Her portrayal of this domineering character gives this production an underlying consistency which it might otherwise have lacked. The orders she gives her children are as mandates from on high. When Kate does, upon rare occasion, reveal her emotions, they are believable and evoke sympathy.
JUXTAPOSED to Kate is her sister Blanche (Molly Bishop), a well-meaning but pitiful widow. Bishop's delivery in the first act is ineffectual, but during the second act, when both Blanche's sister and her daughter Nora (Kim Carnesale) confront her, Bishop gives a more powerful turn.
Nora is a self-centered, live-for-today, would-be dancer (if only Mama and Uncle would give her the chance). Carnesale succeeds in portraying the shortsighted selfishness of her character in the first act, and her depiction of the various emotions of a 17-year-old are well executed through most of the play.
Susan Levine is well cast as Laurie, Blanche's second daughter, a sickly 11-year-old schoolgirl. Levine is proficient, even though she doesn't exactly look the part. Her character is less central than the others, but Levine's sincerity in the part is a definite asset to the production.
Despite the entertaining performances of several cast members, Brighton is not a great show. But what mars the production as much as flaws in the performances or the script is the theater space. The Mather TV Room is not meant to seat the 75 to 100 people allowed into each performance. The overcrowded house significantly detracts from the viewing experience, particularly when half your view of the stage is obscured by other audience members. Packing in an audience to the point of cramped discomfort for such an intimate play is an oversight on the part of the producers and an insult to the members of the cast, who merit the public's support. But if you don't mind craning your neck to catch the one-liners of Simon's hit-and-miss script, make yourself at home at Brighton Beach Memoirs.