By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic
There was a time in the not-so-distant past that Neil Simon was known as Mr. Broadway. The most commercially successful playwright in America, Simon racked up 17 Tony nominations for his work and received the ultimate tribute when a Broadway theater was named after him. A Simon play was/is a smart, funny comedy filled with people who know their way around a snappy wisecrack and usually manage to resolve all of their somewhat self-manufactured problems by the tidy ending.
But after decades of writing such patented laugh (and cash) producing machines as The Odd Couple, The Sunshine Boys and Plaza Suite, in 1983, Neil Simon decided he was going to take a stab at sincerity. In what is known as the “Eugene Trilogy,” Simon looks back at his past and, over the next three years, writes an autobiographical series collectively telling the story of his doppelganger Eugene Jerome’s growth into manhood; Brighton Beach Memoirs (his stormy adolescence), Biloxi Blues (the time he spent in the Army) and Broadway Bound (the beginnings of his career as a professional writer). All three were hugely popular when they opened and all were filmed for either the big screen or television.
Brighton Beach Memoirs continues through September 22 at The Theatre Factory, Trafford. 412/374-9200. www.TheTheatreFactory.com
If you’d like to see how the series, and Simon, started, a local production of Brighton Beach Memoirs has just opened at the Theatre Factory in Trafford. The play is set in 1937 and we’re in the Brooklyn home of Eugene and his family; mother, father, brother, aunt and her two daughters. Plays being what they are, everybody’s got a wealth of emotional secrets and scars which, for the next two-plus hours, Simon unwraps for the audience. It’s all about how these well-meaning but emotionally stunted people, without ever meaning to, lacerate each other. There’s a great deal of love in the Jerome clan but, of course, it would take an act of Congress for anybody to admit it.
As with any Simon work, you can’t help but admire his ability to structure a play. Of course, the laughs are many and always land, but behind that Simon has built an unshakeable foundation to support the jokes and drama.
Theatre Factory director Paul Reynolds presents an entertaining, good-natured reading of the play. The collective energy of his production could be bumped up several notches and the pace is a little meandering, but his love for the Jerome family is evident in every scene.
Among the many capable performances, I enjoyed James Gaschler and Jared W. Lewis as Eugene and Stan who make the bond shared by the brothers palpable and surprisingly moving. Erin Seaberg, as the mother Kate, is the rock-solid center of this production, bringing flashes of humor, despair and unplumbed sadness. Amelia Bender plays the role of cousin Laurie with a dry sense of humor which could only be described as “arid” and scores big laughs.
But let’s close out with a cautionary tale about the state of theater in America. In 2009, a New York revival of Brighton Beach was announced featuring Laurie Metcalf and Santino Fontana. The plan was to get that show opened and then, later, revive Broadway Bound and run the two in repertory. But despite Brighton Beach’s fairly strong reviews, audiences never came … and the show closed after only nine performances. This sent something of a shock through the theater world; if Neil Simon, Neil Simon!, couldn’t make it in New York, what would be the future of Broadway? You only have to look at the endless parade of musical revivals and onstage Disney cartoons for the answer.