Matt Street, Heidi Platt, & Jason M.Jones. photo: Theatreworks of SOIN.
Brighton Beach Memoirs
By Neil Simon
Directed by Jason Roseberry
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2018, Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
The first of Neil Simon’s famous trilogy of autobiographical plays, Brighton Beach Memoirs won several Tony awards and helped make Matthew Broderick a star. The thin veneer of fiction places Eugene Jerome in Simon’s shoes, the younger of two brothers coming of age during the Great Depression and the dawn of World War II.
Simon’s balance of humor and pathos is finely tuned here, with the laughs broad yet assured enough to uphold his reputation for comedy, and moments of warmth that are allowed to quietly resonate. 16-year old Eugene (Matt Street) narrates in brief monologues directed to the audience, introducing his mother, Kate (Heidi Platt), who runs the household with a firm hand, his father, Jack (Jason M. Jones), and older brother, Stanley (Ryan T. Land). Kate’s widowed sister, Blanche (Laura Eigelbach) also resides in the two-story home with her daughters, Nora (Tara Renee Smith) who is slightly older than Eugene and the object of his youthful lust, and Laurie (Arabella Paulovich), whose heart flutter relieves her of any responsibility to household chores.
The playwright explores the conflicting dynamic of three sets of siblings, Stanley and Eugene, Kate and Blanche, and Nora and Laurie, each pair with one favored while the other bears the brunt of the stress. Eugene feels he is unfairly blamed for anything that happens in the house, Nora is thwarted in her ambition to audition to be a dancer in a Broadway show, while Kate has buried the frustration in being the harder-working, less favored sister, at least in her mind. There is structure but not tidiness, a fault in some of Simon’s earlier “dramedies” that he has worked through by this time.
While act one is briskly paced entertainment, act two is tougher and more heartfelt in how these relationships play out. And although Eugene is the lead, the story is as much about the other characters, particularly Kate and Blanche; another example of how well Simon wrote for women. Time and memory serve him well in gaining insight into the lives of these overlooked wives and mothers, and Brighton Beach can boast three well-developed female characters. Laurie has some moments, but she remains somewhat oblique in the script.
The players push for their laughs, and if there are moments that they apply a little too many quotation marks in their delivery, it is not entirely misplaced in Neil Simon, but this play has plenty of tenderness and heartache, and the performances capture these moments with a more subtle touch. Matt Street is a very good Eugene. Brash and quick-witted, his self-absorption gives way to the beginnings of empathy. And even though Ryan T. Land comes off a little too goy for this Jewish family, he builds Stanley’s conflict with care and makes the connection with his brother palpable. Laura Eigelbach charts Blanche’s move to independence free from contrivance so that it just seems an honest reaction. Tara Renee Smith reminded me of Kiernan Shipka’s Sally Draper in the later seasons of Mad Men, so filled with anger and unforgiving contempt for her family; a young girl with an adult ambition unable to understand why she may not be ready to take on the world. And Jason M. Jones exploits that Simon has made the father the most insightful figure in the family, and always defying the clichéd expectations they have for him. Arabella Paulovich does well by Laurie, but the text underserves the character. Towards the end, when it appears that Simon is about to allow her a moment of greater depth and clarity, he pulls back from the moment in favor of one more one-liner from Eugene.
For me, Kate is the most complex character, and Heidi Platt renders all of the rich and painful emotions in a performance edging close to magnificence. The overall pace felt a bit rushed opening night, with a few moments that called for an extra beat or a full pause to allow the emotional resonance to register more fully with the audience, and that quality keeps Platt’s characterization from being all that it might be. Still, she fully comprehends the inner turmoil of the woman, and beautifully explores the bitter release that is the crux of the action.
The period detail in Vicki Hays’ costumes and Chris Bundy’s set is impressive, highlighted by an array of China and vintage plates on display, and he gives unexpected depth and broken space to the broad but shallow stage. The emphasis on symmetry suggests a kind of harmony years before the words “Feng Shui” entered our common vocabulary, investing the play with the idea that order and tidiness were crucial for surviving tough times. As Kate says when remembering leaving the home spic and span before being chased out of Europe by the Cossacks: “At least they would know we were CLEAN Jews”.
This is my third visit to Theatreworks of Southern Indiana, a young company who can boast years of experience among its ranks. The company has quickly established a track record of solid production quality for shows that, while they may not be particularly risky choices, are worthy standards from the catalog of the last 50 years of American Theatre. They appear to be building a loyal audience of Hoosiers, and they so far are worth the trip across the Sherman-Minton bridge from Louisville.
Brighton Beach Memoirs
June 6-9, 13-16 @ 7:30pm
June 10 & 17 @ 2:00m
Theatreworks of Southern Indiana
203 E. Main Street
New Albany, In 47150
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.