THEATER REVIEW: ‘BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS’ : It’s Any Family : A year may be too long to wait for the next chapter in Neil Simon’s ‘BB’ trilogy.
Set in Brooklyn in 1937, “Brighton Beach Memoirs” is the first installment of Neil Simon’s autobiographical “BB” trilogy, followed by “Biloxi Blues” and “Broadway Bound.”
The Conejo Players are planning to produce all three, one per year. That’s a fine idea but may put pressure on the company’s audience. The production of “Brighton Beach Memoirs” that opened last week is so inviting that many will find a year’s wait for the next chapter to be a year too long.
The entire play takes place during two nights, a week apart, in and directly outside of the home shared by the extended Jerome family.
Eugene, the younger brother, is the central character and Simon’s idealization of himself: a Yankees fan who’d like to become a professional baseball player but whose second choice would be a career as a writer. And, just in case, he’s already preparing his memoirs.
When first produced in 1983, “Brighton Beach Memoirs” was cited as a sign of a newly mature Simon, a bit deeper than his previous successes, which, critics would have it, were little more than patchworks of gags.
Whatever relative depth the play might have, there’s no more than a momentary pause from laughter, often provoked by the wisecracking Eugene, either in conversation with his family or commenting on the action, directly to the audience.
And there’s plenty to comment on. We’re eavesdropping on the family during a particularly difficult period of their life. Times everywhere are hard, and the world’s readying itself for World War II. Longstanding pressures between sisters Kate and Blanche are building to a climax. Father Jack is working too hard. Brother Stanley is having problems at work. Young cousin Laurie is suffering from some undefined illness. And 15-year-old Eugene and his slightly older cousin, Nora, are on the threshold of adulthood.
Everything’s resolved by the final curtain, and there isn’t much chance that it won’t be. The play’s appeal is in watching the gears mesh.
First of all, it looks great. Set designer Darrell Gustafson and a huge crew have come up with a two-story house for the Jeromes, so perfect (seen in cutaway) that we wouldn’t be surprised if water ran in the sinks and the toilets flushed. Crystal St. Roman’s costumes are functional, though in some cases perhaps a bit too modern.
Stuart Berg directs with a sure hand for the material, and the lighting (designed by Dick Johnson, operated by Jeff Calnitz) is especially effective.
As for the acting, “Brighton Beach Memoirs” is a star vehicle. It launched the career of Matthew Broderick, who created the role of Eugene. David Gautschy, a UC Santa Barbara theater major, walks away with this production. He seems to have been born to play the sharp-tongued, confused but optimistic Eugene.
Standouts among the supporting cast include Leonore Gabel as Eugene’s mother, Jeannine Marquie as his insufferable younger cousin, and Arnold Fadden as the father who’s somehow able to keep everything together.
Commendably, both the writing and acting underplay or avoid most conventional Jewish stereotypes. This could be any family.
* WHERE AND WHEN: “Brighton Beach Memoirs” plays at 8:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday through Sept. 29 at the Conejo Players Theater, 351 S. Moorpark Road, Thousand Oaks. General admission is $8 on Thursdays and $10 on Fridays and Saturdays, with a $1 discount for seniors and children 12 and under. For reservations, which are essential, or further information call (805) 495-3715.