I 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.
Miss Julie is August Strindberg’s 1888 drama about a Swedish aristocrat into kinky sex who has a class-defying one-night stand with her father’s manservant and then kills herself out of some mix of shame, desperation, regret and simple psychosis. It was scandalous in its time—and was apparently banned in many places—because of its frank treatment of sex.
After Miss Julie is Miss Julie as adapted by the English playwright Patrick Marber, who modernizes the story—well, “modernizes” the story—to England in 1945, on the night of Labor’s landslide electoral victory.
In other words, instead of being a story about century-old Swedish class mores and no-longer-particularly taboo sex, it is a story about half-century-old English class mores and no-longer-particularly taboo sex. No wonder it was rapturously received in London when it was presented at the Donmar Warehouse in 2003. Brits, after all, care about British class issues.
New Yorkers, however, mostly do not, and that makes for a sometimes wearying 90 minutes.
Miss Julie and her father’s chauffeur, John, dance together (scandalously, for its time and place) and dance around each other, alternatingly seducing and condemning each other, alternatingly confessing love for each other and reveling in power over the other. They plot to run off together; they plot to abandon each other. Not unlike in the current revival of Oleanna, a key point of tension doesn’t exist for the audience—there, campus gender politics, here British class issues—and we’re left instead with a study in manipulation, a question of who is using whom.
Sienna Miller, the intriguing indie film star making her Broadway debut, is well cast in the role, lovely, radiant and blindingly blond, an upper-crust femme fatale with perfect posture and better diction. She’s histrionic in the play’s second half, but, then, so is the character. She never really seems out of control, however; never seems to be actually mad. Instead, she seems like a confident girl in over her head, a manipulator who’s been out-manipulated.
Jonny Lee Miller, also in his first Broadway appearance, is her lover and antagonist, dark, handsome, brooding and magnetic. He acquits himself better, cleanly moving from a servant’s deference to a charmer’s seduction to a resentful servant’s sadistic pleasure in power. Marin Ireland—who dominated in Neil LaBute’s Reasons to Be Pretty last season—is impressive as Christine, the house’s cook and John’s long-suffering common-law fiancée. She manages to hold the audience’s attention through a meticulously choreographed lengthy silent scene in which she cleans up her kitchen after having been left behind by John and Miss Julie, dutifully folding clothes, then primping herself, then growing bored and eventually falling asleep.
Elsewhere in Mark Brokaw’s direction, though, the pacing can seem off—the first half of the short play seems to drag on interminably. Allen Moyer’s detailed set of a country-house kitchen—complete with running water and working stove—puts a ceiling on the room, effectively dropping the proscenium height by nearly half and creating out of the otherwise sprawling kitchen more of a pressure cooker. Mark McCullough’s lighting is remarkably detailed, shifting the world outside the kitchen from night to day and bathing the crazed lovers in their own glow, even when the set around them is shadowy and menacing.
As the play ends, Miss Julie walks out of the kitchen, into that blazing morning sun, implicitly to slit her own throat. She’s been humiliated by a servant, which in mid-century England might have been horrifying. But in new-century New York, posh accent or not, it’s hard to care.
AVENUE Q WAS already in a low-rent neighborhood—its protagonist, the recent-college-grad puppet Princeton, armed with only a B.A. in English and an ambition to find a purpose, tells his new neighbors that he’d started his apartment hunt on Avenue A and kept going till he found a place he could afford—but the economic downturn has thrown it, like many others, out of its home and into a cheaper one. After six years and change on Broadway, it closed last month at the Golden Theatre and then reopened last week Off Broadway at New World Stages.
The new production feels lower-rent, too. Maybe because of the size of the venue, or the size of the orchestra, or just the several-replacements-later nature of the cast, it lacks some of the excitement of the original. But—and here’s the Sesame Street–suitable happy ending—it’s still utterly delightful.
Even six years later, the show is still gleefully subversive—you never quite get used to Muppet-style puppets fucking—and still hilarious. (It should be noted, however, that Anika Larsen, who plays Princeton’s two love interests, the winsome Kate Monster and the vampish Lucy and is a veteran of the final Broadway cast, could belt to the back row of the biggest Broadway house.) The songs (by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, with book by Jeff Whitty) are, if anything, better: not just tuneful melodies with witty lyrics, but, in a few cases, now genuine members of the show-tunes canon. (At least, so says any weekend at Marie’s Crisis.)
Best of all—and rare in the Theater District this season, with its 1920s revivals and 1980s revivals and updates to 1945—it still speaks to life in this city today, remains an honest and wistful look at being a New Yorker in your 20s. It’s still hard to find an apartment, and a purpose; there’s still a fine, fine line between a lover and a friend; and—as Eugene Jerome would no doubt be thrilled to know—the Internet is still for porn.
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