Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 25, 2009
Brighton Beach Memoirs (The Neil Simon Plays) by Neil Simon. Directed by David Cromer. Scenic design by John Lee Beatty. Costume design by Jane Greenwood. Lighting design by Brian MacDevitt. Sound design by Fitz Patton & Josh Schmidt. Hair & wig design by Tom Watson. Cast: Laurie Metcalf, Dennis Boutsikaris, Santino Fontana, Jssica Hecht, Josh Grisetti, Gracie Bea Lawrence, Allan Miller, Noah Robbins, Alexandra Socha.
The answer, I’m happy to report, is an emphatic yes. That should surprise no one who’s followed David Cromer’s work in either Chicago, where he’s done most of it, or his two previous New York ventures, the incomparable revival of Our Town (which is still playing Off-Broadway at the Barrow Street Theatre) or the merely exquisite Elmer Rice-inspired musical Adding Machine (which played at the Minetta Lane last year). In both productions, Cromer revealed himself an unparalleled rethinker who strips difficult and “dated” (yes, with the quotation marks) properties to their essences and makes them feel current again. Cromer, as respectful of the writers as his own theatrical inclinations, has in Brighton Beach Memoirs performed his wisest move yet: made himself as invisible as possible.
This isn’t to say you don’t sense the hand of a strong-willed interpreter - you do. There’s perhaps less sunny fizziness about this production than others of the show you might have seen, and a stronger emphasis on the hardships and lacerations that define the Jerome family in 1937 Brooklyn. But, as with Our Town, Cromer has simply dissected and reconstructed what was already present in the text. He’s added nothing of his own, instead devoting the entirety of his work to ensuring that the playwright’s voice is heard unfettered and in its entirety.
His discoveries, which he records in the diaries that give the play its title, constitute the action of the play, which on the strictest level is more a collection of moments than a fully cohesive work. The first and second acts link only incidentally, and many of the complications within each are of the contrived and easily resolved variety that convey vital characterological and atmospheric information but don’t necessarily climax in catharsis. Eugene’s thin overlay of smarmy smugness also makes the promise of future dissolution that this is not in itself equipped to fulfill.
But Cromer and his roundly excellent cast have smoothed over every seam to snap a warmly sepia photograph of a family too fraught and loving to know that it, like the world around it, is on the brink of collapse. The air is leaden with just-scraping-by disaster, which may manifest itself in Stanley’s being fired, Jack’s having a heart attack, or Kate rebelling after too many years against the sister she wishes she didn’t have to support. With Metcalf gloriously weighted-down and yet whip-cracking smart, Boutsikaris a perfectly airy picture of middle-age weariness, and Hecht quietly stunning in how she grudgingly accepts her self-pity, this is an unusually serious rendition of the story. It’s emotionally overwhelming in its darker moments, especially after receiving a life-changing letter in the final scene, but also all the funnier in its lighter moments because you believe they’re suffering beyond happiness.
This effect is immensely satisfying, not just because it deepens what can easily be perceived as a shallow play, but also because the ultimate disintegration of the Jeromes begun here is the specific subject of Broadway Bound. With both plays being presented in the same theater, with the same designers (John Lee Beatty, responsible for the impressively shabby manor set; Jane Greenwood’s diminutive costumes; and Brian MacDevitt’s just-right lighting) and most of the same cast members, this entire evening serves as the energizing opening to the poignant and passionate denouement yet to come. (It’s a shame that there’s not also room for the in-between play, Biloxi Blues, which describes Eugene’s evolution as a writer during World War II, but its requiring an entirely different set and almost entirely different cast defeat this project’s otherwise financial and artistic practicality.)
For the setup to work, however, you must believe Eugene as the family’s fulcrum. With Robbins at the center of the action, you do. Only 19 years old and making his Broadway debut just out of high school, Robbins is rougher and more smart-alecky than the role’s originator, Matthew Broderick, was at the same age. But he slides through the difficult role with effortless grace, making Eugene both a burgeoning Borscht Belt comic and a boy who’s learning that becoming a man is more than just growing up and growing out.
Eugene’s maturation from sharp-eyed observer to active participant in his life technically exists beyond the boundaries of Brighton Beach Memoirs. But Robbins and Cromer predict his evolution in the gentle progression here from a life of tragedy to a life of comedy and back again, letting you see how the future comic writer is being formed and shaped by the people who know him best and challenge him most. It’s hard to imagine a more fitting metaphor for the now-adult and still-kicking Simon, who’s apparently written a work that can survive the most radical reinterpretation of all: doing what’s on the page to the fullest extent. This production serves as a thrilling reminder that Simon’s always been more than a pure funnyman, and that the pain, loss, and redemption Cromer so gently reveals have always been integral components in the laughter Simon has so freely mined.