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Brighton Beach Memoirs is an odd choice for this moment. Focusing on the anxieties of a working-class Jewish family as they navigate the Depression, Neil Simon’s semi-autobiographical coming-of-age dramedy is neither fully hysterical nor heartwarming. It is the first installment of a three-part trilogy that follows a fictionalized Simon from Brooklyn to Broadway. In Delaware Theatre Company’s production, directed by Bud Martin, a few very good performances elevate this play.
Narrating the action of the Jerome house is Simon stand-in Eugene Morris Jerome (played with enthusiasm by DJ Gleason). Eugene is a tricky part to land. He is naive, but needs to be reflective enough to carry the audience through the emotional landscape of the play. In all, Gleason is good as the put-upon little brother. He frequently soliloquizes to the audience with classic Simon borscht-belt schlock—in these moments, the delivery can get a little, well, annoying, but that does fit with the character.
The family ensemble
Adam Howard delivers a stand-out performance as Eugene’s older brother Stanley. While Martin’s direction can give a frantic sense to this rather boilerplate drama, a well-grounded Howard manages to find naturalism in all of his scenes. His chemistry with Gleason is remarkable and they find truth and humor in their brotherly repartee. A mid-Act 1 scene, in which Stanley explains the birds and the bees to Eugene, is the highlight of the show.
Arriving late into the first act is the patriarch of the Jerome household, Jack (Charlie DelMarcelle). DelMarcelle delivers a fine performance, and the best accent work of the ensemble. He presents as a profoundly good father; always willing to sacrifice for his family and say just the right words to bring peace to the sometimes-chaotic network of Ashkenazi anxiety.
Rounding out the family is matriarch Kate, played with some stock Jewish-mother strength by Leah Walton. The family’s Depression-era income is stretched thin by Kate’s widowed sister Blanche (Karen Peakes), and her two daughters; the pretty Nora (Jenna Kuerzi) and the chronically ill Laurie (Alea Brice). Nora is an independent spirit who, to the family’s chagrin, yearns to quit high school to become a Broadway dancer. Unfortunately, Kuerzi often conveys this independence in a way that veers into anachronistic 21st-century teenager-dom. Brice’s Laurie presents as more sick than bookish, and has an awkward chemistry with her costars.
The cast’s Brooklyn accents are inconsistent and sometimes strange. The dialect becomes a problem when “Mr. Murphy" and a string of “pearls” are central to the plot of the second act; these r-controlled vowels lead actors to produce sounds never before heard on earth.
The 1930s, 40 years later
Costumes by Katherine Fritz are period-appropriate and serve the play very well. Sound design by Michael Kiley provides the right amount of interstitial music to keep the play moving along and provides a pitch-perfect sense of nostalgia. Colin McIlvaine’s set has a lovely interior, but surrounds the central house in artificial turf that feels out of period and economic class for the Jerome family.
In December, Brighton Beach Memoirs will be 40 years old. It shows its age. The neatness of the narrative construction is certainly workmanlike, but can feel predictable and, well, old-fashioned. The plot also centers around Eugene and Stanley fantasizing and finding ways to see Nora’s naked body by looking up her skirt or walking in on her in the shower. This boys-will-be-boys mentality to sexuality is certainly period accurate, and in some ways, it’s appropriately damning to stage it. On the other hand, the subject is not handled here with a particularly deft or sensitive touch.
The play does speak to a few current issues with a surprising resonance. Kate’s unflinching anti-Irish sentiment is shown at full force. I found this detail to be fascinating, as both Jewish and Irish Americans struggled to assimilate into “whiteness.” There are a few moments, once late in the first act, and once late in the second act, where the action alludes to the coming horrors of the Holocaust, as Jack tries to read or listen to the news. This snapshot of a family trying to make sense of their own diaspora in the shadow of an unspeakable incoming horror felt brief, bleak, and honest. When considering how they will welcome in their refugee relatives, they quickly devise a plan to make it work. In this moment, I felt grateful to have spent a few hours with the Jeromes.
What, When, Where
Brighton Beach Memoirs. By Neil Simon, directed by Bud Martin. $29-$65. Through May 22, 2022, at Delaware Theatre Company, 200 Water Street, Wilmington, Delaware. (302) 594-1100 or delawaretheatre.org.
Proof of Covid-19 vaccination is required, and audience members must wear masks. Seating is not distanced.
Delaware Theatre Company is a wheelchair-accessible venue with wireless assistive listening and large-print programs available. For wheelchair seating, notify the box office when ordering tickets.
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