My first introduction to Neil Simon was the television show The Odd Couple. I found a kindred spirit in Felix with his obsessive neatness and refined tastes and enjoyed the witty banter between the opposite personalities of Felix and Oscar. At the time I did not know that I was admiring the work of one of America’s most accomplished playwrights with over 30 stage plays and dozens of television and film credits.
Writing became a way for Simon to explore his own life experiences. He decided to write a semi-biographical work about his early life growing up in Brooklyn and invented the character of Eugene Morris Jerome as his stage alter ego. The result is Brighton Beach Memoirs
, the first in a trilogy of works featuring Eugene. The later plays are Biloxi Blues based on Simon’s military experiences and Broadway Bound about his life in the theatre.
In Brighton Beach Memoirs, we meet Eugene as he enters puberty and is torn between two dreams: to play for the Yankees or to become a writer. His family life is complicated. His father Jack is tired and overwhelmed as he works two jobs to make ends meet during the Depression. Eugene’s mother Kate is a fierce matriarch who rules the home with an iron fist. His older brother Stanley is both an idol and a disappointment. And if that wasn’t enough, Eugene must also cope with his downtrodden aunt Blanche and her two needy daughters, Nora and Laurie, who rely on his family for a home and financial support.
Inside the family’s cramped living quarters, Eugene realizes that everyone around him is broken and that only the strength of a united family can save the day. But can this cast of characters find peace in the midst of turbulent times? And at what cost?
Brighton Beach Memoirs invokes nostalgia and resonance about that moment in life when childlike innocence gives way to a deeper understanding of the world. For Eugene in the 1930’s, it is seeing with new eyes the hardships of the economic depression, the divisiveness of ethnic prejudice, and the devastating effects of guilt and shame on his overbearing mother and older brother. It is the realization that Eugene will probably not grow up to play for the Yankees. In fact, he might not grow up at all if the threat of war continues. Even so, Eugene comes of age with his wry sense of humor intact. While mentored through puberty by his brother, he discovers his first crush and girlie magazines and aspires at all costs to learn more about a woman’s intimate parts, or as Eugene hilariously calls them, the Golden Palace of the Himalayas.
Eric Deibolt is a perfect casting choice as Eugene. His comedic timing and lively facial expressions as he breaks the fourth wall and interacts with the audience reminds me of Matthew Broderick, who won the Tony for the role of Eugene on Broadway. Like Broderick, Deibolt is believable playing a much younger character on stage. His performance is spot on and delivers big laughs in the first act.
Another standout is Lisa Ann Goldsmith who plays the role of domineering Jewish mother Kate. Goldsmith nails the comedic and dramatic aspects of the role with equal aplomb, to the point that audience members find themselves rooting for the deeply flawed Kate despite her many faults and failings. She is reminiscent, in her period look and performance style, of stage legend Patti Lupone.
One of my favorite things about seeing a show at the Loft Theatre is the intimate atmosphere for conversation and catching up with friends over refreshments before or after a show. The experience is enriched for Brighton Beach Memoirs with period music selected by sound designer Jay Brunner. Plan to come early and admire the beautiful set design by Dan Gray as you swing to the sounds of the 1930s.
So will Eugene reach the fabled Golden Palace of the Himalayas? Find out as you take a trip to the beach – Brighton Beach – now through April 22 at the Loft Theatre.
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