Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Brighton Beach Memoirs
Also see Richard's review of The Who's Tommy
In any case, your window of opportunity to relive the one-of-a-kind magic of Brighton Beach Memoirs is closing fast, because an excellent revival in suburban Creve Couer, Missouri, only goes through October 27 of this year. Till then, all the richness and humor and humanity of Simon's own coming-of-age story is deeply realized in director Alan Knoll's production for the New Jewish Theatre.
Jacob Flekier is an enthusiastic delight as (nearly) 15-year-old Eugene, the baseball and sex crazed narrator, explaining how his family, and extended family, all managed to survive under one roof together in the late 1930s. Tempers flare, dreams are broken, and horrible mistakes are made. On top of all that, Hitler's on the march in Europe and, in a little corner of Brooklyn, the Jerome family is barely squeaking by. But you walk out of the theater counting your blessings with renewed vigor, and hoping you could be half as strong and noble and wise when the going gets tough.
It's funny too, of course, even as much of the unexpected drama operates on levels that are both cosmic and kitchen-sink, as when Eugene's cousin Nora (Summer Baer) exclaims to her mother, "I don't exist to you!" Later, Laurie McConnell, as her mother, will wrestle to hold on to her, in insistent, anguished love, as they struggle to endure. It's the most titanic of many emotional moments, in a two hour and forty-five minute play, that are consistently wrenching. In this surprisingly intricate Neil Simon crowd-pleaser, the characters climb to brilliant theatrical heights, whether in shouting matches or absolute silence, thanks to a great cast and director.
There are many lovely comical moments, where petty subterfuges are concocted, and twinges of bitterest tragedy, when secret human anguish is dismissed as mere subterfuge. Simon's search for nobility in an ignoble world rivals Ibsen and Chekhov here. And of course he also had the benefit of 45 years to find the remarkable poetry in his own family.
Chuck Brinkley has several of those great "silent" moments of wheels-within-wheels drama as Eugene's father Jack, working two jobs until he nearly drops dead. But he still manages to lurk around after a heart attack, keeping tabs on his explosive household with quiet resolve, like a secret god. Jane Paradise, as the matriarch, has one foot planted in a firm sense of order and another in simmering outrage at the wild self-indulgences all around her. Hers is a role not played for tragedy or madness' sake, but you can still see the darkest edges, barely tucked away, in Ms. Paradise's performance.
Spencer Kruse deftly maintains a magical aura as Eugene's older brother, at least somewhat more worldly and wise; and Lydia Mae Foster is blithe and likable, despite her role as Laurie, treated like some precious piece of crystal due to a heart flutter. The whole show goes smashing down a rough path between heartbreak and rapprochement, leaving us with a vastly elevated sense of respect for the author of less ambitious (but far better known) plays like The Odd Couple (964 original Broadway performances) and Barefoot in the Park (1,530).
Brighton Beach Memoirs runs through October 27, 2019, at The New Jewish Theatre, St. Louis Jewish Community Center, #2 Millstone Campus Drive. For more information visit www.newjewishtheatre.org.
The Cast (in speaking order):
* Denotes Member, Actors Equity Association