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SAN DIEGO
Regional Reviews by Bill Eadie

Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound
Old Globe Theatre

Also see Bill's review of Notes From the Underground

Neil Simon plays
Karen Ziemba and Brandon Uranowitz
In the early 1980s, Neil Simon turned from writing laugh-a-minute comedies to semi-autobiographical plays. These works were more critically acclaimed than Mr. Simon's earlier plays, and one of them, Lost in Yonkers, won him the Pulitzer Prize. They were well-made plays, and the existing Simon reputation, along with the producing talents of Emanuel Azenberg, made them successful.

Having used Lost in Yonkers as the vehicle for officially opening its new White Theatre earlier this year, San Diego's Old Globe has turned its attention to two other plays in this series, Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound. Mr. Azenberg had attempted to revive these two works on Broadway last season, but, despite being directed by MacArthur "genius grant" recipient David Cromer, Brighton Beach drew such small audiences that it closed before Broadway Bound had a chance to open.

The Globe has repeated this experiment, in a smaller house and with a subscription audience and, while there is much to admire about the productions, the repertory serves to reveal reasons why the Broadway version might have failed.

The two plays are set twelve years apart but in the same Brighton Beach house (the middle play of the trilogy, Biloxi Blues, is set at a military base). The first play takes place at the end of the Great Recession, though jobs are still scarce, families double up to make ends meet, and war in Europe looms, bringing the prospect of increased Jewish refugee immigration to the U.S. The second play is set in the aftermath of the war, as economic boom brings prosperity and with it the possibilities of new lives.

The central character in both plays is Eugene (Austin Myers/Brandon Uranowitz), an aspiring writer with a talent for wisecracks. Eugene's immediate family includes father Jack (David Bishins), mother Kate (Karen Ziemba) and brother Stanley (Sloan Grenz/Joseph Parks). In the first play, Aunt Blanche (Bonnie Black) and her daughters Nora (Allie Trimm) and Laurie (Julia Vanderwiel) live with the family. They are gone by the second play, but grandfather Ben (Howard Green) has moved in.

Family dynamics provide the basis for the plots of both plays, and veteran Neil Simon director Scott Schwartz exploits those dynamics to the degree that Mr. Simon's script allows. But, Simon focuses on what plays out in the front rooms (the living and dining rooms, and the young people's street-facing bedrooms) rather than the back rooms (the kitchen, the parents' bedroom, and the bedroom used by the adult relative in the house). Ralph Funicello's set design includes the back spaces and gives us glimpses of them, such as a light being turned on and off, alerting us to the fact that there are mysteries that are never explored until they boil over in the common areas.

This emphasis on what is shared may keep the plot playing more on surface levels and stifle the depth for which Mr. Simon was clearly striving. There are exceptions, though, such as when Kate tells Eugene about the time she danced with the actor George Raft, but it's an intimate moment that happens to occur in the common space while other family members are unlikely to interrupt.

Mr. Schwartz's production is first rate, with fine contributions by the designers, including imagining the front of the audience as the sidewalk outside the house and the theatre aisles as sidewalks leading away from the house. His more experienced actors (Mr. Bishins, Ms. Ziemba, Mr. Green, and Ms. Black) fare better than his less experienced ones, however. Mr. Myers' performance is not as energetic as I expected from a teenaged cracker of wise (he is, perhaps, hampered by having to play several scenes at audience level), but Mr. Uranowitz has mastered the older Eugene quite well, and the George Raft story scene he plays with Ms. Ziemba (herself an accomplished dancer) is magical.

The Old Globe's Neil Simon repertoire provides audiences highly competent productions of well-made plays, but theatre magic is in short supply. The plays themselves may be mostly to blame.

The Old Globe presents Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound, by Neil Simon, through November 7, 2010, at the Old Globe Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way, San Diego. Tickets ($29-85) and performance dates for each play are available by calling the box office at (619) 23-GLOBE [234-5623] or by visiting The Old Globe's website.

Directed by Scott Schwartz with Ralph Funicello (Scenic Design), Alejo Vietti (Costume Design), Matthew McCarthy (Lighting Design), Paul Peterson (Sound Design), Michael Holland (Original Music), Jan Gist (Dialect Coach) and Diana Moser (Stage Manager).

The cast of Brighton Beach Memoirs features David Bishins (Jack Jerome), Bonnie Black (Blanche Morton), Sloan Grenz (Stanley Jerome), Austyn Myers (Eugene Jerome), Allie Trimm (Nora Morton), Julia Vanderwiel (Laurie Morton) and Karen Ziemba (Kate Jerome).

The cast of Broadway Bound features David Bishins (Jack Jerome), Bonnie Black (Blanche Morton), Howard Green (Ben Epstein), Joseph Parks (Stanley Jerome), Brandon Uranowitz (Eugene Jerome) and Karen Ziemba (Kate Jerome).

Photo: Henry DiRocco

See the current season schedule for the San Diego area.

- Bill Eadie

Follow Bill on Twitter: www.twitter.com/SDBillEadie.



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