by Lynn on June 4, 2018

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Greenwin Theatre, Toronto Centre for the Arts, Toronto, Ont.


Written by Neil Simon

Directed by Sheila McCarthy

Set by Sean Mulcahy

Lighting by Siobhán Sleath

Costumes by Alex Amini

Sound by Emily Porter

Cast: Umed Amin

Meghan Caine

David Eisner

Kelsey Falconer

Lawrence Libor

Sarah Orenstein

Nicole Underhay

A beautifully rendered production of Neil Simon’s semi-autobiographical play.

Note: I was given permission to review the second last preview.

The Story. Brighton Beach Memoirs is the first of Neil Simon’s “Double B” semi-autobiographical plays that chart his rise to the iconic playwright he became. They are:  Brighton Beach Memoirs, about being a teenager in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, New York and wanting to either be a baseball player or a writer; Biloxi Blues about his time in the army; and Broadway Bound when he did become a playwright on his way to wild success. These plays are of course funny but there is a deeper seriousness to them because they are based in truth.

In Brighton Beach Memoirs it’s 1937. Eugene Morris Jerome, aged 15, lives with his mother Kate, father Jack and older brother Stan, plus his widowed aunt Blanch and her two daughters, the sickly Laurie and the alluring 16 –year-old Nora. So sexual frustration abounds with Eugene.  Money is tight then.  Every dollar counts.  Kate and her sister Blanche love each other but there are simmering jealousies. When that many people live that closely together things boil over.

While Neil Simon is known for the zinger lines and sharp comedy and Brighton Beach Memoirs is very funny, at it’s heart it’s a serious comedy because there was more at stake.  For example, Jack worries that his relatives in Europe who are Jewish would be caught up in Hitler’s anti-Semitism.  He then worries that should they appeal to him for help where would they put them all? He worries about money and needs Stan’s paycheque to make ends meet. One day Stan loses his paycheque in an unfortunate way.

How do you cope with that?

Nora needs her uncle to decide about her future. What he gives her instead is advice on what to do—which to me is more important. So what Neil Simon is dealing with are issues of family, living in fraught times and trying to get by. We can all recognize these people.  And while Neil Simon puts his funny spin on things we know what is happening to the Jerome family was happening to a lot of others as well.

The Production.  The production is terrific.  It’s smart, funny and poignant.

It’s directed by Sheila McCarthy, an actress who knows her way around humour, wit, heartbreaking moments and being true to the text. She brings all that expertise here in her direction. It’s not fussy or show-offy.  Comedy is serious and McCarthy keeps her actors serious as they speak the comedy. They don’t telegraph the jokes.

Humour comes naturally to the character of Eugene and Lawrence Libor plays him with a fine, flat Brooklyn accent and wide-eyed confusion at what is going on around him. He is that perfect, hormone-driven 15-year-old who is trying to understand the world and himself in it.  You certainly see the family dynamic with Kate being the energetic, concerned but frazzled matriarch, played with grace and confidence by Sarah Orenstein.

As her sister Blanche, Nicole Underhay illuminates the ‘overstaying guest’.  Blanche is welcome in that house, but Underhay shows the reticence and sensitivity Blanche has in living with her sister, jobless, and trying her best to help out.  David Eisner plays Jack, the hard-working, fretful patriarch of the family.   He does have the weight of the world on his shoulders and it takes its toll.

At every turn in this solid, generous production, this is a family who love each other, who do the best they can and who have a moral centre that is solid.

Sean Mulcahy’s split level set shows the upstairs with Eugene sharing a bedroom with Stan and Nora and Laurie share another room. Downstairs is a small living room, dinning room and off. We get a sense of the size of the place where this large family lived and coped.

 Comment. Brighton Beach Memoirs has the usual Neil Simon humour but there is something much deeper here because Simon is delving into his own family where the hurts and disappointments are real even when mixed with the natural humour of his characters.

This production at the Harold Green Jewish Theatre, is poignant, heart-squeezing and so worth a visit to the Greenwin Theatre to see it.

Produced by the Harold Green Jewish Theatre.

Opened: May 28, 2018.

Closes: June 10, 2018.

Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, approx.


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