O That Simonian Rag

oxfeldfamily table bbm med O That Simonian RagI am, despite a weakness for toe-tapping song-and-dance numbers, a cynic, and the preopening ad campaign for the new revival of Brighton Beach Memoirs, all ’80s quotations and ’80s typography, gave plenty of ammunition for cynicism. (If The Times offered the option of printing in sepia, no doubt the producers would have jumped at it.) And when the stage lights came up at the Nederlander Theatre, where the first installment of Neil Simon’s autobiographical trilogy opened Sunday night (Broadway Bound, the third, will play in repertory alongside Brighton Beach starting in December), things didn’t seem much better.

It’s a memory play about growing up in a poor Brooklyn Jewish family in the years just before World War II, and, like any memory play about growing up in Brooklyn, it’s got its youthful protagonist—Eugene Morris Jerome, Mr. Simon’s stand-in—imagining himself pitching for the Yankees, tossing a ball in the street, wearing knickers and pining for girls. Equally de rigueur, there’s an elevated-subway track overhead and the sound of a passing El as the curtain goes up after the prologue.

The Simonian shtick at first seems dated and clichéd, too: One of Eugene’s early monologues revolves around the Jewish-grandparent habit of whispering when mentioning the names of deadly diseases—his Uncle Dave died of (shhh!) cancer—and I’m sure I’ve seen any number of curly-haired, flannel-clad slackers do the bit in front of various brick walls on Comedy Central. Even Eugene himself—played with enthusiasm, energy and charisma by a fresh-faced Noah Robbins, a newcomer who has deferred his Columbia acceptance for a year—is overburdened with his waving arms and one-liners, a 15-year-old Woody Allen.

But then, about midway through the first act, you settle into Mr. Simon’s world, and it all starts to work.

That early whispered-disease joke may now be a staple, but the play debuted in 1983—quite likely, Mr. Simon invented that bit. Eugene may be borscht-belty, but he’s a young Mr. Simon—how could he not be?

As the play progresses, director David Cromer brings out not just Brighton Beach’s broad comedy but also its emotion, the tenuousness and sadness of its characters’ lives. It becomes a sensitive portrait of a very different New York existence, only a few generations removed. (When Jack Jerome, the hardworking paterfamilias, says that he never got past the eighth grade, “and that’s why I spend half my life on the subway and the other half trying to make a few extra dollars to keep this family from being out on the street,” I was suddenly reminded that my grandfather didn’t, either.) The cynic’s wariness melts; his heart, he is a little embarrassed to say, is even warmed.

The superb cast is led by Laurie Metcalf, the Roseanne star who last year gave a credible portrayal of a less-than-credible character in David Mamet’s mediocre November. As Kate Jerome, she expertly plays Mr. Simon’s perhaps overwrought Jewish-mother comedy (“A roller skate? On my kitchen floor? Do you want me dead, is that what you want?”) while also effectively conveying that the weight of the world—or at least the weight of running a seven-person household on little money in hard times—is, in fact, on her shoulders. (The towering set—sliced-open two story house, street in front, yard alongside—is by Jon Lee Beatty and connoted to me more middle-class respectability than impoverished resignation.)

And Santino Fontana, as big brother Stanley, maintains a movingly affectionate brotherly rapport with Mr. Robbins’ Eugene. When Stanley, ashamed to have lost his week’s wages in a poker game, decides to leave the family and says goodbye to his brother, the cynic’s eyes might even moisten a bit, too.

With his minimalist, modern-dress Our Town, which opened last winter at the tiny Barrow Street Theatre, Mr. Cromer gave what can be a hackneyed period piece a fresh look and a bracing currency. At the Nederlander, his reinterpretation is far less radical (of course, Neil Simon is a famously demanding author; Thornton Wilder has the decency to be dead) but also less successful: Our Town became universal; Brighton Beach’s charms, while manifest, I suspect will remain limited to those who whisper disease names (and those of us descended from them).

But that’s all right: They’re the people who buy Neil Simon tickets.

 

“THEY LOVE US over there,” the chauffeur John says to the mistress of his English country estate, Miss Julie, as the two are fantasizing post-coitally about the nightclub they’ll open in New York. “They die for the accent.”

Well, maybe. But After Miss Julie, which opened in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s American Airlines Theatre last week, is asking a lot in exchange for some received pronunciation.