There’s great satisfaction in seeing a well known artist reference their roots, their early days before they broke through. Watching Eugene, the hero of Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” as he comments on his wonderfully nutty family and writes down his mother’s utterly quotable expressions, you smile at the knowledge that, yes, Simon likely did just that. His life experiences and upbringing provide the wit and harsh truths of his best work. Whether taken as “semi-autobiographical” or a comedic tell-all, there’s a universal quality here that everyone can connect to and laugh along with.
We meet Simon’s stand-in, Eugene Jerome, at the age of fifteen. His brother Stanley is both a companion and a knower of all things important (namely, anything of a sexual nature). His mother, Kate, has a firm grip on the household, while his father, Jack, relishes moments when he can sit in his chair alone. Their Brooklyn home is shared by Kate’s sister, Blanche, and her daughters, the sickly bookworm Laurie and the dancer-to-be Nora. Eugene’s struggles to understand his family are nothing compared to the enormity of that faces him: the hormonal changes of puberty.
Director Ricky Jones has encouraged fine work from his actors and ably stages the action, but especially worthy of note are the two most unusual touches he’s brought to the production. Jones designed the set, which creates the illusion that we’re looking through an invisible wall. The closest visual comparison I can think of is the invisible building from the little seen Chevy Chase vehicle, “Memoirs of an Invisible Man” (a reference I suspect two, maybe three readers, tops, will connect with). By allowing us to see the intimate exchanges of the characters through the brick exteriors of their home, Jones pushes Simon’s concept of autobiographical confessional even further.
The other unique quality of this production (which may be considered Concept Simon, a new genre, to be sure), is that the younger characters are double-cast. I’ve never liked shows that did this, as there’s typically that unfortunate comparison between the A. and B. casts. In the past, shows with double casts always struck me as the result of a director who couldn’t make up his/her mind. In this case, I’m happy to say it actually works.
Jones held a preview of the show in which one group of actors played Eugene, Laurie, Nora and Stanley in act one, then switched them for the second act. The actors will play the roles on alternate nights for the whole show but, for the one-night only preview, we got to see different youngsters play the parts in the first and second acts. Rather than coming across like some post-modernist stunt or an exercise in confusion, it only demonstrated that Jones had made a wise, albeit risky choice. His extended cast each bring distinct shades to their roles, finding individualistic touches and comic beats that make each performance worth seeing. Jones offers a discount for repeat theater goers, an offer I suggest taking up (the program lists the days when the actors will each play he roles, so you can plan accordingly).
Zeb Mehring and Carver Glomb alternately play Eugene. Both are hilarious and give very different but equally valuable interpretations of the character. The character of Laurie can be thankless in the hands of a lesser actress, but both Marley Mehring and Kaya Glomb find the tender and remote qualities inherent in the younger cousin who is both a confidant and indifferent to her siblings. Nora, the older cousin who sets Eugene’s loins on fire, is played with grace and charm by Mikayla Wesson and Ashlyn Aniban. Stanley, Eugene’s brother, is played by Orion Milligan and Kaiamana Neil, both of whom find the relatable confliction and warmth in their characterization.
The parents are played by the same three actors for every show. Ally Shore’s performance as Kate never steps wrong. Her superb vocalization, visibly hearty chemistry with her co-stars and force-of-nature presence had me utterly convinced and thoroughly delighted. As Blanche, Noel Smit has similarly authentic quality to her work, sharing exchanges with Shore that feel lived-in. Playing Jack, the father both befuddled and at the center of this unique unit, Dale Button is once again chameleon-like. Whether Jack is offering comfort to Nora or giving Stanley his stern advice, Button is sensational.
The dinner scene, where Eugene battles his big mouth and overt lust, is a highlight, as is the adorable and hilariously raunchy close to the first act. The funniest scenes are performed so winningly, the real trick is to avoid laughing so hard you miss the best lines.