Brighton Beach Memoirs
Why did it take so long? Maybe each one puts the other in focus, in this mixture of sentiment ghastly grit: it's a perfect marriage, with a serious cast on a grand set in a very dark chapter of American history. And in spite of that backdrop, Brighton Beach Memoirs scores a lot of heartfelt laughs, too. At the first Sunday matinee, it seemed to have a pronounced salutary effect on the audience, with lots of hugging and special politeness shown all around the theater afterward. Unexpectedly magical.
And, till now, I never noticed how Simon could use jokes or wisecracks to actually heighten the tension, instead of to puncture it, but there it is. And it's hard to remember that terrific actors can be so darned funny, in the midst of every imaginable heartbreak. Yes, the script does dip into a few moments of drippy sentimentality toward the end. But, by then, the speeding train of our own thoughts can only grab those few extra emotional mail-bags without pausing, as it races down the tracks.
The story is told by a 15-year-old who wants to be a baseball player, or possibly a writer, dividing his free time between the two. Ryan DeLuca gives us this young Neil Simon-type character, beautifully nuanced and neatly wrapped up, as he weaves his family's many stories together. Lori Wilner plays his fiercely determined mother, somehow revealing a tenderness that will ultimately slay all her fury and frustration. She and Christianne Tisdale (as her widowed sister) have a great story of truth-telling, and an emergence from hopelessness, as one of the domestic sub-plots. (Ms. Wilner even had a perfect ad-lib when she nearly dropped a plate, while setting the table in Sunday's performance.)
Adam Heller is (equally) brilliant as the stoic man of the house, the overworked father, pushing himself to the brink to support two families in the Depression. The grim, mysterious preoccupation on his face (and on Ms. Wilner's, too) is deeply compelling, and both parents give us a devastating lesson in real backbone along the way. Mr. Heller and Ms. Wilner are what famed acting teacher Stella Adler called the "giants" in this show. In a new book of her collected speeches, Adler says, "an actor has to be big, enormousa giant. His mind, his feeling, his ability to interpret must be that of a giant."
Heller and Wilner each bestride the narrow world of Simon's youth, and yet somehow they inhabit the stage as life-sized people, revealing their stature only in the gravitational astonishment that's left in their wake, as they grab each new problem by the throat. That said, their dominance also creates one of the best long-arc problems of the play, as Ms. Tisdale's Aunt Blanche must struggle to get her own feet on the ground, heroically, at last, six years after the death of her own husband. Director Woolf's mind must be like a sixteen-lane freeway at rush hour, as each character's story races around and around.
Michael Curran-Dorsano is unexpectedly powerful as Mr. DeLuca's older brother, when he's not giving Eugene some questionable advice on the rules of manhood, or how to get away with a few things that aren't even in that particular rule book at all. But when things go south for his character (Stanley), his shrugging resignation is painful to behold. In my notes, I wrote that Mr. Curran-Dorsano dispenses the jokes that heighten the tension between his character and Ms. Wilner (as his mother). But in my unwritten, persistent memory, it seems to me this actually happens between Mr. DeLuca and Ms. Wilner, as the boy is coming downstairs once another family crisis has been revealed to him. Or, maybe both young actors do it, out of fear of Ms. Wilmer's ferocious mother-bear. There's a lot of stuff going on in this show, folks. In any case, it's actually a pretty breathtaking innovation, when you consider a joke is always intended to relieve the tension.
The young actresses are excellent, tooJamie Jacobs Powell is the girl with the heart flutter, who is a constant source of fretting, and Aly Viny is the pretty niece whose loyalty is tested when she gets a chance to audition for a big Broadway revue.
Simon still seems a little calculated to me, but only in the first and last 20 minutes. When Brighton Beach Memoirs ran in New York, it won the Critics Circle award as best play of 1983. The jokes are still very good, sometimes great, and the stakes are sky-high as the story gathers speed. You really can't say that about a lot of later Simon plays. But this one works on every level, all the time.
Through September 30, 2012, at the Browning Mainstage Theatre in the Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road, at Webster University in Webster Groves, MO. For more information visit www.repstl.org.
Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.
* Stella Adler on America's Master Playwrights, © 2012 Alfred A. Knopf