Saturday, September 8, 2018

Brighton Beach Memoirs at Lakewood

When salmon meets lox
by Michael Dresdner

L to R: Drew Bates, Andrew Fox Burden      All photos by Tim Johnston

Lakewood Playhouse opened their 80th season last night with Brighton Beach Memoirs, part one of the brilliant autobiographical trilogy by the deservedly legendary Neil Simon less than two weeks after his passing. It’s a masterpiece of timing.

By the time Simon turned his attention to his own childhood memories in this oeuvre, he had already racked up a string of close to 20 stage hits over as many years, including Come Blow Your Horn, Barefoot In The Park, The Odd Couple, Plaza Suite, The Sunshine Boys, Murder by Death, and several others.

L to R: Andrew Fox Burden, Pamela Roza 

Eugene Jerome (Drew Bates) is almost 15, not yet recovered from puberty, and living in a barely middle class Brooklyn household in 1937, a time when war was already heating up in Europe. Eugene does double duty as the narrator who fills in details and delivers a stream of comical “observations” about his family, a technique that mitigates the painfulness of their very tenuous grip on solvency.

L to R: W. Scott Pinkston, Andrea Gordon 

His father, Jack Jerome (W. Scott Pinkston) works two jobs to support his wife Kate (Pamela Roza), their sons, Eugene and his 18-year-old brother Stanley (Andrew Fox Burden), Kate’s younger and more timid sister Blanche (Brynne Garman), and her two daughters, the beautiful 16-year-old Nora (Andrea Gordon) and her 13-year-old sister Laurie (Kate-Lynn Siemers), who has a heart flutter but is treated like far more of a delicate flower than she really is. Blanche lost her husband six years earlier to cancer (a word no one says in anything but a whisper lest uttering it would bring it on) and is completely dependent on the largess of her sister’s family. They all live crammed together in a small house where they must be constantly on top of one another.

At the opening of the play, Jack has lost one of his two jobs, and son Stanley, the only other wage earner of the bunch, is on the cusp of losing his. It’s just the first of  any number of calamities, mostly financial, that befalls the stalwart tribe, but they always manage to pull together and soldier on. The glue that binds them is a deep and real familial love, something strong enough to overcome whatever comes.

Meanwhile, Eugene is grappling with his lust for his cousin Nora, the dark secret of teen masturbation, and his dual desires to be a baseball player and a writer. Throughout, he’s fed a scattering of sage sexual advice by his slightly more aware older brother, confidant, and role model Stanley.  

L to R: Pamela Roza, Brynne Garman 

Although the males take much of center stage, the best scene, and the most authentic character portrayals, comes during act two, when sisters Kate and Blanche have it out. The argument dredges up all the long-suppressed resentments of childhood, from the common “mom always liked you best” issue, to the unyielding unfairness of being the older/younger sibling. Kudos to Roza and Garman for making that scene truly sparkle.

The set, by director John Olive with props by Karrie Morrison, was large, complex, and quite appropriate, though I have seen better paint jobs from past Lakewood teams. Lighting by Michalyn Thomson was bright and clear, but I would have liked to have seen it used for more delineation. For example, there are times when Eugene verbally (not physically) “steps away” from the action to narrate, and dim lights and a spot on him would have made those transitions more crisp.

Costumes, by Rachel Wilkie were right on target for both the characters and the time period, and if you like that period’s music, which I do, you’ll love the sound design by Artistic Managing Director John Munn.

My biggest issue with this play is how much it depends on a deep understanding of the culture it portrays. Simon peels back the veneer of classic Jewish angst to expose a very specific, and very common, family dynamic. However, though it is in English, he expresses it through the unique rhythm and musicality of Yiddish jargon. That may sound easy, but it’s rather elusive for West coast ears.

Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with salmon, but it’s not lox. Though this undoubtedly sounds effete and petty, for someone who grew up as part of that culture, this rather goyisha take on Simon comes off a bit like an all-white version of Raisin in the Sun.

Still, that hairsplitting is probably lost on most patrons, and to be sure, the opening night audience definitely found this both funny and delightful. My guess is that you will too.

Brighton Beach Memoirs
Sept. 7 to 30  2018
Lakewood Playhouse

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