Neil Simon is a comic playwright, but in 1983 his writing showed new depth with Brighton Beach Memoirs. The first of several autobiographical plays, this one features his alter ego, Eugene, at 14, growing up part of an extended family in the Brooklyn/Coney Island neighborhood of Brighton Beach, an enclave of second-generation Jewish immigrants.
Told with Simon’s typical humor, the play employs situations and character rather than jokes to drive its humor. Using mild stereotypes — a bright kid, an overworked father, a controlling mother, a nervous aunt — it’s is a heartfelt portrait of the stresses and strains of an intergenerational family crowded into a small home and trying to get by on limited resources in 1937.
It’s a fine show for the Covedale Center to present with its emphasis on conservative values and family dynamics, played with wit and feeling.
Max Meyers totally gets the role of young Eugene, directly addressing the audience about the foibles and fears of his Jewish family, not to mention his struggles with the first pangs of sexual desire, stirred by his sweet 16-year-old cousin Laurie, played by Katie Hibner. Big brother Stanley (Jon Kovach) coaches Eugene while grappling with his own frustrations.
As Eugene’s stern, fretful mother, Tracy M. Schoster has believable strength and Tara Williams is her nervous younger sister, widowed and struggling to raise two daughters. David Levy’s world-weary father, trying to make ends meet and be the family’s wise counselor, provides a fine portrait, too.
Covedale’s wide stage makes the family’s supposedly
cramped conditions too spacious and generic. The play’s second act is
overly melodramatic, then resolves too neatly. The young actors (aside
from Meyers) are so focused on their own performances that they don’t
connect effectively with the others. Nevertheless, Brighton Beach Memoirs is a very pleasant (if a bit overlong) production that audiences are likely to enjoy.
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