ACT II: A second look at area stages — ‘Brighton Beach Memoirs’
By Hedy Weiss Theater Criticfirstname.lastname@example.org May 16, 2013 1:10PM
Sam Hubbard (left) and Charlie Bazzell in "Brighton Beach Memoirs" at Raven Theatre. | Dean LaPrairie photo
‘BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS’
When: Through June 29
Where: Raven Theatre, Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark
Info: (773) 338-2177; raventheatre.com
Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, one intermission
Updated: May 19, 2013 2:44AM
Neil Simon might not be the darling of the avant-garde theater crowd. But anyone who doubts the enduring power of his plays to generate a surefire mix of tears and laughter should pay a visit to Raven Theatre’s revival of his 1983 drama “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” now in a first-rate production directed by Cody Estle.
Set in 1937, this initial installment in Simon’s semi-autobiographical trilogy (which also includes “Biloxi Blues” and “Broadway Bound”) is driven by the playwright’s charming and precocious teenage alter-ego, Eugene Jerome. A fledgling writer, he has a preternatural feel for the unintentional tragicomedy to be found within the walls of his family’s Brooklyn home. And beyond everything else to be savored in this expertly cast Raven production is the sheer delight of watching Charlie Bazzell’s portrayal of Eugene.
Bazzell, still a student at Whitney Young High School, is lean, agile and adorable. What’s more, he has flawless comic timing, perfect diction and the sort of ease at being on stage that can’t be taught.
The situation in the Jerome household is apparent from the moment you enter the theater and see the marvelous two-story set designed by Amanda Rozmiarek and elaborately “dressed” by Mary O’Dowd.
The place is home to salesman Jack (Ron Quade) and Kate (JoAnn Montemurro), and their sons Eugene and Stanley (Sam Hubbard), the older brother he worships. It also has been shared for years with Kate’s younger, prettier sister, Blanche (Liz Fletcher), and her two daughters: Nora (Sophia Menendian), the spirited, showbiz-aspiring girl that Eugene comically lusts after, and her asthmatic, bookish younger sister, Laurie (Elizabeth Stenholt). They have depended on the kindness and financial support of their relatives ever since Blanche’s husband died young and unexpectedly six years earlier.
It is the Depression, and money is exceedingly tight. Jobs are iffy. Nerves are taut. Health is a concern. And resentments are kept suppressed. Stanley, Eugene’s principal sex education teacher, works at a low-level job (and then engages in some near-calamitous gambling) to help support the family and to ensure that Eugene can go to college. Blanche is considering going out on her first date with a non-Jewish neighbor — something Kate cannot abide.
Adding to the anxiety are the newspaper headlines of Hitler’s onslaught, which bring the global stage right into the Jeromes’ living room. What will happen if the family’s European relatives flee the Nazis, arrive in the U.S. and need to move in? (In hindsight, that would be the best-case scenario, but very likely they will perish.)
There is a great deal of kvetching and a whole lot of genuine worry at work here. But it is when Eugene taps into these “tense moments” in the household — moments he admits to loving, and whose absurdity he instinctively senses are the gold nuggets of comedy — that Simon is at his best. And his best is pretty irresistible.