Neil Simon's 1983 Brighton Beach Memoirsis an immensely pleasing balancing act. Our most popular playwright's first major drama of serious autobiographical content, it deepens Simon's previous 22 years of hit gag-fests, yet more than equals their charm and humor. In these memoirs of the summer when Simon's extended family shared a beach bungalow, we get a few changed facts and some slightly prettied-up realities, but a touchingly honest reflection of both family conflicts and enduring values and affections.
Geva Theatre Center's spiffy new production is beautifully cast and tightly directed by Tim Ocel to preserve the comedy's balance of touching reality and hilarious wit, without a single false note.
Our narrator is Eugene Morris Jerome, almost 15, in love with baseball and with his 16 ½-year-old cousin, Nora. He dreams of becoming a writer. It is 1937, a few years before the actual period when Simon and his family lived in Brighton Beach in the house of his aunt and uncle and their two daughters. In Memoirs, Simon makes the aunt a widow who lives with her daughters in the Jerome family's house.
Eugene's cranky mother holds the crowded household together. His loving father anchors all the family's turmoil with dependable support and wisdom. But the effects of the Great Depression make it tough for this hard-up, hard-working, Jewish family to take care of themselves, much less the relatives they pray will escape the war brewing in Europe and come to them for shelter. Still, from the point of view of our teenager, the dominant concerns are the Yankees, avoiding an unfair share of household chores, and sexual awakenings.
Everything in this perceptive comedy is realistically specific in time and place, but free of any barriers to our understanding and appreciation. The production is nicely judged. Erhard Rom's big, exquisitely detailed set recreates a much lived-in dwelling that informs us about the people and their era. B. Modern's costumes are appropriate enough to help the actors inhabit their characters. Kendall Smith's subtle, but complex, lighting unobtrusively underscores the play's moods and meanings.
The whole cast is admirable. Young Eugene is really the toughest role. Never played by a near-15-year-old, the boy must seem unaware of his own wit, hold our concern, guide our perspective, and seem all the while to be foolishly funny and boyish. Dennis Staroselsky does well with all those tasks. After good subsequent stage and film performances, I've come to realize that the extraordinary presence and magnetism Matthew Broderick originally brought to Eugene were Broderick's unique qualities, and not inherent in the role.
Mitchell Greenberg brings a remarkable, understated authority and decency to the idealized father (the real father deserted the family when Simon was 14), in effect portraying the father Simon wished he had. Lori Wilner is wonderfully persuasive as Kate, the ultimate Jewish mother, managing to avoid stereotype and be annoyingly nagging without once making us dislike her.
Barbara Sims brings rich detail to Kate's edgy sister, Blanche. Ocel continues the tradition of casting Blanche as a glamorous, decidedly un-Jewish-looking blonde (though she's never so described in the script). Bryant Richards gets impressive comedy and anguish in the slightly underwritten role of Eugene's brother, Stanley. And in fairly typical roles (attention-needing, lovely teenager and spoiled brat younger sister, respectively), Dana Powers Acheson and Kathleen Burke are fine --- though Ms. Burke could use work on vocal projection.
Simon went on to write richer, more challenging dramas, but in Brighton Beach Memoirs,he created a perennial favorite by looking back on the formative joys and troubles of his youth with affectionand compassion. Ocel's revival keeps those values intact.
Brighton Beach Memoirs,by Neil Simon, directed by Tim Ocel, plays at Geva Theatre Center, 75 Woodbury Blvd., through Sunday, February 9. Performances are Tuesday-Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 4 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Special matinee on Wednesday, February 5, at 2 p.m. Tix: $12.50-$46.50. 232-GEVA (4382), www.gevatheatre.org.