Playwright Neil Simon can sometimes get a bad rap. It is easy to pick on him for being the poster boy of "safe" and "easy" theater because of his shows like Barefoot in the Park and Sweet Charity. Most of the greatest playwrights of the 20th century, in thier liftime, never achieved even a modicum of the success Neil Simon has had. That success painted Simon as a populist writer and drained critical enthusiasm for decades while his shows continued to be smash successes. A common quip among theater folk is if a theater is in the red, do a Neil Simon show! Butts will end up in seats.
Brighton Beach Memoirs legitimized Simon with the critics in a way his earlier work couldn't. As fun as shows like The Odd Couple and The Sunshine Boys are, they exist primarily as joke delivery machines with 90 percent of the dialogue being used as set-ups for punch lines. With Memoirs, he not only went back to his childhood and created something semi-autobiographical, but he created characters in service of something more than one-liners.
The show is narrated by Eugene Morris Jerome, a precocious 15-year-old living with his family in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn in 1937. The story is partly a coming-of-age comedy, but is bolstered by some fairly heady subject matter including impending war and possible poverty. Eugene's father, Jack, has just lost his job, his older brother Stan is helping support the family, and his widowed aunt and two female cousins have just moved into the already cramped household. Meanwhile Kate, Eugene's strong and harried mother, attempts to hold everything together.
Normally, in the theatrical (and film) versions of this play, Eugene is cast with someone in their late teens or early 20's because the character has to carry the entire show and sometimes it can be hard to find a 15-year-old to pull that off. Director Sandy Silver (born in Brighton Beach) has bucked that tradition and cast 13-year-old Erik Ellefson in the role, lending the show a welcome authenticity.
Ellefson succeeds at playing an adolescent boy from the 1930s. His poorly thought-out obsession with his beautiful cousin's breasts, and his desire to record every casually racist thing his mother says makes Eugene the rare adolescent who is fun to be around.
Brad Thompson gives a powerhouse performance as Jack, who is exhausted, sick and just waiting for life to get a little easier. Thompson brings such a world-wearied, lived-in quality to Jack that he leaps off the stage as a potent amalgamation of all America's fathers.
Brighton Beach Memoirs functions well as a comedy, but its true power lies in watching a family not our own deal with life in ways equally hilarious and heartbreaking. The bittersweet undercurrent running through the show allows the viewer to transpose their own childhood onto that of the Jerome family and gain a tiny bit of catharsis from that.
Give Neil Simon as much crap as you want, but he did this one right.
Brighton Beach Memoirs
Thursday-Sunday, August 15-30
Cascades Theatrical Company, 148 NW Greenwood
Tickets $13-$20, available at Cascadestheatrical.org