There are many rooms, impeccably kept and waxed with nostalgia, in the wooden-frame Brooklyn house that has been built on the stage of the Nederlander Theater, where David Cromer’s soft-spoken revival of Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs” opened on Sunday night. But the spot that you really want to focus on is the second-floor bedroom on the left.
That’s where the Jerome brothers, 14-year-old Eugene and 18-year-old Stanley, sleep, kvetch, fight, joke and occasionally cry during several momentous days in 1937. It is also the one room in the Jerome household where magic happens regularly. These acts of prestidigitation involve nothing more than two actors, Noah Robbins (as Eugene) and Santino Fontana (as Stanley), and Mr. Simon’s snappy, streamlined dialogue.
When these young men exchange Mr. Simon’s words, the jokes come second. They aren’t reciting polished zingers from a Broadway master. It’s as if they’re inventing what they say on the spot: fumbling, pausing, listening, thinking and cracking each other up. Even discussing topics like whether Dad ever masturbated or what their curvy cousin looks like naked, these guys aren’t playing to the audience. They’re so totally tuned in to each other that we feel like delighted eavesdroppers.
Such spontaneity is seldom associated with productions of Neil Simon comedies. One of the most successful of all Broadway playwrights, whose hits include “Barefoot in the Park” and “The Odd Couple,” Mr. Simon writes mannered, rhythmic dialogue that cries out for rimshots and point-scoring gestures. In his universe everybody’s a comedian, Catskills-style. And even when his subjects are somber (bereavement in “Chapter Two,” alcoholism in “The Gingerbread Lady”), his characters live by their one-liners.
Mr. Cromer, a fast-rising director out of Chicago, is determined to reveal the emotional pith beneath the comic sheen in this and another semi-autobiographical play by Mr. Simon about the Jeromes: “Brighton Beach Memoirs” (first staged here in 1983) will eventually be performed in repertory with “Broadway Bound” (1986), which has its first preview on Nov. 18. The overlapping cast includes Laurie Metcalf, Dennis Boutsikaris and Jessica Hecht.
With “Memoirs,” at least, Mr. Cromer is only partly successful. His approach here, at least psychologically, is not unlike the one he brought to his enthralling revival of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” (still playing Off Broadway at the Barrow Street Theater). You can imagine him saying to his cast members, “Keep it natural, keep your voice down, and let the audience come to you.”
That advice is easier to follow with “Our Town,” a play that wears humility like a merit badge, than it is with “Memoirs,” in which the budding writer Eugene (Mr. Simon’s alter ego) serves as the play’s laugh-milking narrator. There are definitely moments in Mr. Cromer’s gentle production — particularly in intimate, tightly focused scenes between two characters — that are genuinely, freshly stirring. On other occasions, text and performance seem to be tugging in different directions.
“Memoirs” bears the same relationship to Mr. Simon’s work that “Ah, Wilderness!” does to Eugene O’Neill’s. Both plays are exercises in retrospective wish fulfillment, transforming their authors’ often fraught childhoods into sunny domestic harbors in which troubles only brought families closer and father really did know best.
In Mr. Simon’s version, that realm is ruled by Jack Jerome (Mr. Boutsikaris), a garment cutter and salesman, and his fretful but loving wife, Kate (Ms. Metcalf). It is the Depression, and tough times are made tougher by the addition to the Jerome household of Kate’s widowed sister, Blanche Morton (Ms. Hecht), and her daughters, the nubile Nora (Alexandra Socha) and the younger, sickly Laurie (Gracie Bea Lawrence).
The plot is structured with a mathematical care and precision that seemed old-fashioned even 26 years ago. (That formula is kept on life support today in some television sitcoms.) The family’s individual problems are carefully laid out; they are allowed to boil until they overflow into confrontation; and then they are resolved, at least temporarily, to everyone’s satisfaction.
The depiction of a whirling, crowded daily life — as closely packed relatives keep getting under one another’s feet while remaining firmly lodged in one another’s hearts — is part of what made “Memoirs” a hit in the early 1980s, when the ideal of the big American family had been under siege for years. And this version provides a warming, richly detailed homestead for the Jeromes in John Lee Beatty’s set. (Jane Greenwood’s Depression-era costumes and Brian MacDevitt’s honey-toned lighting enhance the effect.)
The problem is that when the Jeromes and Mortons all sit down at the dinner table, it’s hard to believe that they belong to the same clan. Mr. Simon’s family scenes require a degree of self-dramatization and good old loudness. The competition for attention is a crucial dynamic in any large family, and it makes all its members exaggerate their quirks.
In trying to subvert the cliché of the screaming Jewish family dinner, Mr. Cromer hasn’t come up with an alternative connective sensibility. I was often aware of a host of individual performances — some of them very artful — that didn’t necessarily link into the others. And there were times I felt an intellectual distance between the performers and their roles.
Ms. Metcalf, for example, is an excellent actress of assured technique and probing intelligence. You see it at work here in Kate’s restless eyes, taking constant inventory of a house that she feels might collapse if she ever relaxed her vigilance, and in her bone-dry delivery of sentimental lines. But I was also aware of the conscientious craftswoman making those actress’s choices.
Handsome and implacably assured, Mr. Boutsikaris isn’t quite right for the weary, put-upon father, but given those restrictions he manages well. Of the adults, Ms. Hecht comes closest to a fully integrated performance as the uncertain, dependent Blanche. (As her daughters, Ms. Socha and Ms. Lawrence don’t register strongly.) But her performance is so subdued and inward-looking that when Blanche finally erupts, you don’t believe it.
Yet if this “Memoirs” seldom sings rousingly in its choral scenes, it often makes lovely music in its duets. Mr. Boutsikaris and Ms. Metcalf have several throwaway moments, involving little more than exchanged glances and half-gestures, that say much about why their characters’ marriage flourishes. Ms. Metcalf and Ms. Hecht have a gorgeous, underplayed scene of reconciliation that is one of the show’s high points.
Family harmony and disharmony never sound more convincing in this production, though, than when Eugene and Stanley go one on one. Mr. Robbins, whose long comic’s face suggests Woody Allen crossed with Buster Keaton, avoids being adorably glib in Eugene’s asides to the audience.
But it takes Mr. Fontana’s Stanley — a decent, thoughtful, worried fellow on the edge of manhood — to bring out the best in his kid brother. Which can also mean the worst. As Eugene observes, love and loathing are inextricably linked in family relationships. If that paradox feels only fitfully real in this production, it achieves affectingly vital life whenever the squabbling, interdependent Jerome boys take to their room.
As a character in a Neil Simon play might observe, it has not been a great season for menschen on Broadway. From the haughty heroine of After Miss Julie to the ranting student and teacher in Oleanna, few leading characters in drama have aspired to the agreeability and overt decency suggested by that Yiddish word.
Under any circumstances, then, a revival of Brighton Beach Memoirs, Simon's portrait of a thoroughly endearing Jewish family in late 1930s Brooklyn, would be a welcome diversion. But the new production (* * *½ out of four) that opened Sunday at the Nederlander Theatre is a lot more than that.
Memoirs, the first installation in Simon's autobiographical "Eugene trilogy" — the third, Broadway Bound, opens in December — traces two tumultuous weeks in the life of Eugene Jerome, a 15-year-old Yankees fan and fledgling writer. His working-class parents, Jack and Kate, toil endlessly and with little means to provide the foundation for a better life for their kids.
That struggle is complicated by the presence of Kate's widowed sister, Blanche, who moved her family into the cozy Jerome household when her husband died and, six years later, seem to have no exit strategy. Jack's heart, taxed by a relentless work schedule, is further burdened by news of Hitler's rise abroad, where he has relatives.
Simon's unabashedly sentimental account of all this is not the kind of stuff that gets deconstructed in college literature courses. Still, with the right combination of comic panache and gentle insight, it can be extremely winning — and this cast, lovingly directed by David Cromer, has both qualities in spades.
Eugene, introduced in 1983 by Matthew Broderick, is played here by 19-year-old Noah Robbins, who lists his most recent credit as a high school production of The Producers. No matter: As a precocious, sweetly mischievous nerd, this kid is spot-on, so natural and funny that you'll leave the theater wishing you had seen his Max Bialystock.
The other young players are similarly authentic. As Blanche's elder girl, Nora, the object of Eugene's guilty adolescent lust, Alexandra Socha captures the breezy sense of entitlement that tends to afflict pretty teenagers without obscuring the character's tender heart. And Gracie Bea Lawrence's deadpan take on her pampered, hypochondriacal kid sister, Laurie, is priceless.
As Stanley, Eugene's big brother, Santino Fontana is another standout, managing a moving chemistry with Robbins and Dennis Boutsikaris, who is superb as the stalwart Jack. Laurie Metcalf and Jessica Hecht respectively invest the harried Kate and fragile Blanche with both wry humor and profound sensitivity.
Metcalf, Boutsikaris, Hecht and Fontana also will be featured in Broadway Bound. If that staging offers as much unbridled charm as this one, they'll really have something to kvell about.
Hats off to the farsighted producers of "The Neil Simon Plays" for taking a risk on their choice of director. While David Cromer's most recent New York hits, "Adding Machine" and "Our Town," mined piercing depths in timeworn texts, they did so in an austere presentational style that seemed a million miles from the warm-hearted humor of "Brighton Beach Memoirs." The first installment of a Simon double that continues with "Broadway Bound," opening Dec. 10, the revival strikes an exquisite balance between comedy and pathos, its impeccable ensemble landing every laugh while exploring every emotional nuance to build a tremendously moving portrait of family life.
Premiered in 1983, Simon's autobiographical play introduced 15-year-old alter ego Eugene Morris Jerome, an aspiring writer whose progression into adulthood was chronicled through the trilogy's subsequent parts, "Biloxi Blues" (1985) and "Broadway Bound" (1986).
It's easy to imagine "Brighton Beach" becoming either mawkish or sitcommy in the wrong hands. But Cromer has wisely opted not to direct it as comedy shaded by poignant moments, instead taking the more sober reverse approach of treating the play as a family drama leavened by humor. That choice pays off beautifully.
The cast is on the exact same wavelength; they play the characters, not the jokes, so while there's plenty of Simon's trademark wisecracks and one-liners, they are not the engine. What drives the play is the humanity and compassion, virtues and failings of the very real people onstage, and the constant collision of love, anxiety and frustration that shapes their relationships.
A typical teenage boy, obsessed with baseball and the unfolding mysteries of sex, Eugene (Noah Robbins) serves as guide to the story, recording choice nuggets in his diary, "The Unbelievable, Fantastic and Completely Private Thoughts of I, Eugene Morris Jerome." While the device provides a lighthearted frame, it also highlights Simon's skill at conveying the way gifted comic writers can draw on the most ordinary situations for inspiration.
Set in the working-class Brooklyn neighborhood of the title in the late 1930s, in the encroaching shadow of WWII, the play's treatment of a family struggling to stay together and make ends meet resonates perhaps more now than it did in the 1980s.
The Jerome clan is straining at the seams, including not only Eugene's older brother Stanley (Santino Fontana) and their parents, Jack (Dennis Boutsikaris) and Kate (Laurie Metcalf), but Kate's widowed sister Blanche (Jessica Hecht) and her daughters, Nora (Alexandra Socha) and Laurie (Gracie Bea Lawrence).
A no-less-important character is John Lee Beatty's massive set, a cutaway of the Jeromes' worn but cozy (and scrupulously clean, Kate proudly points out) two-floor house; lighting designer Brian MacDevitt gracefully ushers our attention around its four rooms and porch to follow the action.
Act one spins around simmering conflicts that bubble up during a tense dinner. Stanley has taken a principled stand in defense of a co-worker and now risks losing his job. Starry-eyed Nora wants to quit school to pursue a dubious-sounding offer of a spot in a Broadway chorus. Troubles multiply in act two when Stanley loses his salary in a poker game, workhorse Jack has a mild heart attack, and Blanche pins her long-neglected romantic hopes on an Irish neighbor with his own problems.
But it's not so much what happens to this fractious Jewish family as the big-picture mosaic Simon so deftly assembles. There's a deeply pleasurable rhythm to the play's swaying moods, from the comedy of Eugene's reveries about naked girls or his martyrdom about being resident errand-boy to the genuine pathos of good people enduring economic hardship and worry. The dramatic integrity Cromer brings to the material means the darker, more emotional second act flows organically from the meticulous character-building of the first.
There's no romanticized gloss on the view of family life; the bonds are intense and unbreakable, yet they come through with all the wrinkles of real life.
Metcalf's weary, bone-dry Kate is the production's volatile center, while Boutsikaris' warmly empathetic Jack is its soul. The well-worn grooves of their marriage are equaled in the details of Kate's loving/nagging relationship with Blanche. The former has always been the selfless -- if not uncomplaining -- carer, while the latter has drifted increasingly into self-pitying frailty. Even when long-buried resentments are aired and resolutions to change are made, the feeling remains that these roles are irrevocably etched in the sisters' respective DNA.
Bonds between the younger siblings are no less vivid. Leaning on her heart flutter as grounds for laziness, bookish Laurie is a prim observer who can't hide her vicarious pleasure in big sister Nora's precocious blossoming. Among the funniest and most tender scenes are the intimate moments between Stanley and Eugene, laced with impatience, envy, admiration and camaraderie.
Every member of the cast creates a multidimensional character. Metcalf's ability to match brittleness with heart is peerless, tossing off guilt grenades and unshowy gestures of affection with equal conviction. Boutsikaris' Jack is a rock of earthbound wisdom and parental understanding. Hecht is lovely; her cracked voice and jittery mannerisms suggest a woman prematurely aged but not ready to wilt. And Fontana brings such strength of character to Stanley that his threatened departure sparks sobs in the audience.
Robbins is slightly younger and weedier than Matthew Broderick when he originated the role, and perhaps deeper into cartoonish nerd territory. But while his Eugene seems almost a caricature at first, the performance steadily accrues texture in both functions, as a droll narrator and as part of a rich dramatic fabric.