The artist as a young man
A moving performance of Neil Simon’s coming-of-age-story
The main reason Neil Simon’s plays remain some of the most popular community theater/school productions in America is because they are filled with well-written characters who, like real people, are composed of as many flaws as virtues. And it doesn’t hurt that Simon’s really freakin’ funny. His best works are neither corny nor overstuffed with fleeting pop-culture references, so whether you’ve seen ’em a dozen times or are hearing Simon’s lines decades after the fact you’re going to laugh.
And last Saturday night, some of Simon’s most fun and clever words won over the sold-out crowd at Chico Theater Company for the opening-night performance of his classic Brighton Beach Memoirs.
The play is nearly 30 years old, and it takes place 46 years earlier than that, in 1937. Part one of Simon’s semi-autobiographical “Eugene” trilogy (followed by Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound), the play is set in the crowded, pre-WWII Brooklyn home of the puberty-stricken Eugene Morris Jerome (played by Andy Ray).
While the Simon-as-a-young-teen role of Eugene is the lead, he serves mainly as narrator, providing comic relief by addressing the audience to comment on the action as well as interjecting smart-assedness into the drama unfolding around him. And there is plenty of drama with these two Jewish families and their children. The news of mounting tensions in Europe squawks over the radio and provides an uneasy backdrop to the struggles of the Jerome family, as weary father Jack works several jobs as he supports his wife and his two teen sons, Eugene and Stanley, as well as his wife’s widowed sister Blanche Morton and her two daughters, Nora and Laurie (Meghan Murphy and Makenzie White).
Things start with 16-year-old Kate wanting to quit school and run off to Broadway, and then just stack up from there with a sick kid, a sick dad, a lonely lost widow, long-buried family tensions, neighborhood drama, many, many money issues and the notion that relatives fleeing the old country could be knocking on their door any day, needing a place to live.
While the stories play out in typically sentimental resolutions, the sentiments pack a punch and we feel some of what it was like to live in such difficult times. Plus, we got to laugh a ton.
Although I was in stitches with all of Eugene’s quips (“If I cut my hands off, she would tell me to go upstairs and wash my face with my feet.”), the young Andy Ray appeared to get lost in the lights at times early on—reading the jokes on cue, but somewhat disconnectedly. But it was opening night in front of a full house, and he still had time to warm to the crowds and his character, which he did very effectively in several scenes with his brother Stanley (Liam Selby). Selby was wonderful throughout as he regularly slid off the precipice between being a young man living at home and setting off on his own.
While I felt especially drawn to the fiery, conflicted Stanley, the rest of the cast was great as well. JC Newport and Jennifer Peacock were wonderful as they navigated the tensions and emotions of two sisters whose lifetimes of buried emotions started pouring out in the close quarters, and Quentin St. George (aka Quentin Colgan) was fantastically sweet and genuine as the father Jack.
And the set, constructed by Joe Behm and the cast and crew, was very impressive. Filled with the simple furnishings of a working-class Brooklyn family of the time, the set was split into two stages, with the living and dining rooms below and the two children’s bedrooms on a rise at the back.
All in all a very rich, funny and moving night of theater way out on Eaton Road.