Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs pulls back a magical nostalgic curtain. It reveals a slice of life moment, in a 1937 Brooklyn flat, told from the perspective of a mature man reliving that moment through the experiences of the young boy he once was. It’s not a documentary; it’s not a drama. It’s not pure comedy, either, but it contains elements of all three, with a gentle saltshaker toss of ennobling embellishment. The play’s characters are bigger than life as the man/boy recalls them, yet they interact with humble, everyday truth and recognizable mortal sentiment in every scene.
Contemporary Theatre of Dallas excels at presenting this sort of play. Under the judicious, masterful direction of Michael Serrecchia and on an exquisitely detailed, homey and period correct set by Rodney Dobbs, CTD’s cast of seven brings a condensed month in the life of a struggling working class Jewish family to vivid life. Filled with humor, poignancy and the challenges of survival, the performance never flags, never becomes cloying, always remains crisp and true to Simon’s carefully crafted text.
The play require a strong lead, a versatile adult actor who can convey the mannerisms, thoughts and feelings of a teen-aged boy with total honesty, yet still maintain the reserve and wisdom of an adult in his many asides to the audience as he comments upon or inspires the action. After all, the audience doesn’t see an exact portrayal of a teen-ager; they experience a manifestation of a teen-ager as recalled from a loving adult perspective. There are moments when Andrews W. Cope functions clearly as the narrator/stand-in for playwright Simon. At other times his teen angst, frustration and overwhelming energy burst forth with palpable youthful vigor. Cope possesses a genuine chameleon talent, grounded in kinesthetic reality. It allowed him to create a believable embittered, explosively violent war vet in Upstart Productions’ recent SubUrbia, a frightening loose cannon. Yet in Brighton Beach Memoirs he reveals such a sweet, innocent naiveté it’s hard to picture the portrayals coming out of the same actor. Cope presents his character Eugene’s family story like an oil painter deftly dipping into the pigments arrayed on his palette and meticulously, lovingly, tapping his brush to the canvas, no extraneous strokes. He makes it looks so easy. Before the audience knows it is happening, Cope’s Eugene has coaxed every character into full self-revelation and sneaks a wink at the audience to be sure they admire his handiwork.
The other actors in the cast create the absolute reality of Eugene’s family with passion, skill and grace. Cindee Mayfield throws herself into a complete embodiment of the quintessential Jewish mother Kate: worrying, fussing, cooking non-stop, lecturing, caring for everyone in her world to the bone, with an ever-present wary, unforgiving eye on the Irish neighbors next door. Utterly believable as Kate’s widowed and not so worldly-wise sister Blanch, Diane Worman mixes soft helplessness born out of loss and grief with fierce survivor-ship and dignity. As her daughters Laurie and Nora, Jourdan Stein and Marla Jo Kelly create a tangibly habituated sibling dynamic. Eugene’s older brother Stanley presents a complex acting challenge – he’s the family ‘bad boy’, yet must reveal genuine love for and mentor the younger boy in order to mesh with adult storyteller Eugene’s “memory” of the relationship. Will Christoferson creates a young adult torn in many directions, by life and family demands, by a weak nature and by his genuine devotion to his clearly much brighter younger brother.
Director Serrecchia doesn’t have the two actors play the well known ‘wet dream scene’ in Eugene and Stanley’s shared bedroom for laughs. Instead, he has them play the pivotal scene realistically, emphasizing the relationship’s poignancy while allowing the humor of the circumstance to creep in as undercurrent. Rock of the family, with the world’s challenges weighing him down in near Willie Loman proportion, father Jack dispenses wisdom and knits the family together with honor, dignity and a love so quiet yet so intense it makes the audience ache to watch him. Doug Jackson gives a riveting, heart-rending performance as the family breadwinner, failing in heath and almost overwhelmed by the responsibilities thrust upon him to deliberate. Jackson’s sophisticated, modulated portrayal substantiates the truth that far better acting occurs in stillness and silence than it does in chewing up lots of scenery. When Jackson’s Jack is in a scene, no one, on or off stage, takes his or her eyes off him. I’m not that fond of Neil Simon as a playwright. Seeing his work performed, set and directed this well reminds me how important he is in the canon of modern American stage drama. What a rewarding way to spend a few hours in a cool, pleasant theater.
All production elements flow smoothly together as executed by CTD’s professional team. Lighting design: Jason Foster; costumes by Aaron Patrick Turner; sound design by Richard Frohlich; props by Jen Gilson-Gilliam; stage manager – Lindsay Anderson.
Contemporary Theatre of Dallas’ production of Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs runs through July 3. For tickets, call 214.828.0094.
5601 Sears St., Dallas, TX 75206 – one block west of lower Greenville, behind the former Arcadia Theatre. Visit the website for directions: http://www.contemporarytheatreofdallas.com
PHOTOS: Above- l to r: Cindee Mayfield, Andrews W. Cope, Diane Worman, Will Christoferson, Marla Jo Kelly, Doug Jackson, Jourdan Stein; Below – Andrews W. Cope