"I've finally reached the golden palace of the Himalayas!" shouts Eugene Jerome, the lustful 15-year old son of a close-knit Jewish family in Brighton Beach. While Eugene is busy kissing a naked girl on a postcard, the lights dim upon the rest of his family resolving the somewhat weightier issues of sibling rivalry, job loss and parent-child conflict.
This type of transition is typical in Brighton Beach Memoirs, a play that presents the full spectrum of family life, providing a refreshing look at situations we have all experienced. The Leverett House production successfully combines the comedy and drama of Neil Simon's play.
Aspiring writer Eugene Jerome chronicles the tense family dynamics of the Jerome household, burdened by the presence of Eugene's widowed aunt and two first cousins. Through a progression of laughter and tears, we see the characters stuggle to fit the concerns of their individual lives into the primary objective of preserving family peace.
Because Eugene is the channel for the whole drama, the performance of his character is crucial to the success of the play. Bill Selig portrays Eugene as narrator and character both with natural ease. He manages to sustain a candid, jokey rapport with the audience and at the same time can lose himself in his interactions with the rest of the cast.
Eugene's narrative really takes off, though, because of the consistently strong performance of the supporting cast. The characters acquire lives of their own. Janine Poreba's absorbing portrayal of Eugene's mother Kate is especially noteworthy. Because Kate Jerome holds the family together and has a unique relationship with each character, this part is challenging and complex. Poreba gives an intense performance, making appropriate adjustments for different situations. Toward the end of the play, Kate releases about 20 years of pent-up tension in a confrontation with her sister Blanche. Poreba carries Kate's anger, guilt and affection believably and sensitively.
Kaile Shilling gives a potentially flat Blanche a three-dimensional performance. Blanche's self-imposed change of personality at the end of the play verges on the corny, but Shilling pulls this scene off with particular vitality, going beyond the script with subtle body language. Tommy Finkelstein's strong depiction of Jack Jerome lends thoughtfulness and sincerity to a fundamentally passive member of the household. Justin Levitt's timing and tone as Eugene's all-knowing older brother Stanley make his many advice-giving sessions with Eugene particularly funny.
Sarah Tuttleton captures the teenage self-righteousness of Nora Morton with supernatural accuracy. And while Alexis Susman does have that much room to work with the spoiled Laurie Morton, Susman holds her own when confronted with the smothering affections of Shilling and Poreba.
Despite the familiarity of the situations, Brighton Beach Memoirs offers a number of challenges to the director. Marc Jones manages to keep the characters strongly defined even when they are all talking at once, ascribing them specific gestures and mannerisms. More importantly, he steers the play through the numerous transitions of moods. The comedy and the drama complement each other. The high-energy pace of the production never lags in its negotiation of extremely silly and extremely sappy moments.
The costumes and sets reinforce the production, creating a believable 1937 atmosphere. Amy Briggs' two-level set, with bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs, makes an admirable visual representation of the family roles and conflicts.
Brighton Beach Memoirs touches on so many fundamental aspects of growing up and family life that it is hard not to identify with the play. This production brings out the essential power and authenticity of the script. Even though you might feel a twinge of homesickness, it is worthwhile to visit the Jeromes.