It’s impossible to say which of 82-year-old Neil Simon’s several dozen plays and musicals is most frequently staged, but Brighton Beach Memoirs, his most successful blend of the comic and the serious when it premiered in 1983, surely counts among them. Presently playing in a lovely production at Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre, it’s well worth a visit if you haven’t seen it before, or if you have a hankering to see it again.
Since his first Broadway play opened 48 years ago, Simon has remained our most successful playwright, financially. But, like so many well-known funny men before and since, he wanted to be taken seriously. Sure, he’d had an incredible stint during TV’s golden age, writing for Jackie Gleason, Phil Silvers, and Sid Caesar (an experience revisited by Simon in Laughter on the 23rd Floor), and a seemingly unstoppable string of Broadway smashes in the ’60s, including Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, Plaza Suite and the musicals Sweet Charity and Promises, Promises, not to mention his well-received adapted and original screenplays. Still, he wasn’t Brecht or Beckett, or Williams, Miller, or Albee … just a rich master craftsman often brought in to doctor shows scripted by others.
He worked to deepen his writing in the ’70s, with mixed results in The Gingerbread Lady, The Prisoner of Second Avenue, and plays drawn from Chekhov stories and the Bible. Then he lost his wife of 20 years and remarried, and though there had always been personal elements in Simon’s work, 1977’s Chapter Two, reflecting on this death and rebirth, cut closer to the bone. Six years later, he finally did what most writers do first: he wrote about his youth. Brighton Beach Memoirs led to Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound, and paved the way for Lost in Yonkers, which finally won him the Pulitzer Prize he must have craved.
Simon’s Brighton Beach — in the Brooklyn, New York, of 1937 — is a lower middle-class neighborhood populated by mistrustful Jewish and Irish families. His focus, almost exclusively, is on the Jewish household of the struggling Jeromes: father Jack (Paul Schierhorn), who works as a cutter in Manhattan’s garment district and, after hours, selling party favors; older son Stanley (Mack Knapp), employed in a hat shop; mother Kate (Maria Mason); Kate’s widowed sister Blanche (Ashley Manning); and Blanche’s daughters Laurie (Savannah Rose Crespo) and Nora (Amy Thrift). Most important to the play — but least important to the plot — is Simon’s stand-in, Eugene (Cameron Gregg), a baseball- and sex-obsessed 15-year-old who hopes to become a writer and serves as narrator of this story.
And it’s quite a story. Illnesses (the names of which must be whispered) abound; jobs and money are lost (and sometimes recovered); opportunities, both financial and romantic, founder; one character considers leaving home and another does; etc. Yet, particularly in the beautifully written first act, genuine, character-based laughter arises naturally, especially as regards Eugene’s fixation on his beautiful cousin Nora, and on what he learns from brother Stanley about masturbation and much else. The second act is riddled with tears, and shouted confrontations between father and older son, widow and older daughter, and — though Kate is the classic Jewish mother, holding her family together — an emotional explosion that unearths long-held resentments between sisters. The happy ending is earned, but rushed, as if Simon really was writing his first play.
The SART actors are unusually attuned to this material and to each other, and all deserve high praise: This is truly an ensemble effort, and each actor excels at bringing out the full range of emotions demanded, while also nailing each joke. But it’s impossible not to single out Mason and Schierhorn, married onstage and off; their thoughtfulness and tenderness, towards each other and towards the rest of their stage family, are most moving, indeed.
Director Matt Bullock brings intelligence and delicacy to the script and to his cast; one could wish that time had been taken to make the late-play revelations more nuanced (even if that’s really a problem in the script) and that the Brooklyn accents hadn’t occasionally slipped (weirdly, towards Boston), but these are minor blemishes in a strong effort. The design team has also worked wonders, deftly evoking the period and making a highly playable multi-level set work in this relatively small space.
The flipside of comedy is sentimentality, and Brighton Beach Memoirs has more than its share of both. But Simon populated this world with people you know, and SART, gratifyingly, brings them fully to life.
Brighton Beach Memoirs, by Neil Simon. Directed by Matt Bullock. Set Design: Richard Seagle. Lighting Design: Robert C. Berls. Costume Design: Paula McWhirter-Buck. Production Manager: Richard Seagle. Stage Manager: Cindy Baldwin. With Cameron Gregg (Eugene), Ashley Manning (Blanche), Maria Mason (Kate), Savannah Rose Crespo (Laurie), Amy Thrift (Nora), Mack Knapp (Stanley), and Paul Schierhorn (Jack). Through July 26. Shows Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m.