It’s 1937, and Europe is on the brink of war. In the United States, the Great Depression lingers, evident even in the house of Eugene Morris Jerome (Cole Sitilides), a teenage Brooklynite dreaming of a spot on the New York Yankees–or a writing career, whichever comes first. He shares his life with his older brother, Stanley (Eli Pendry), his parents, Jack (Michael Glenn) and Kate (Susan Rome), his widowed aunt Blanche (Lise Bruneau), and his two cousins, the beautiful and independent Nora (Marie-Josée Bourelly) and the sickly Laurie (Sarah Kathryn Makl). Their home becomes the setting and focal point of Neil Simon’s frequently funny, achingly real “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” directed by Matt Torney, now playing at Theater J.
Eugene has his own concerns–namely girls and baseball–but he bears witness to the troubles of his family and those of his relatives overseas. His parents worry about their relatives in Eastern Europe, about how to feed seven people under one roof, about Jack losing his second job. His brother Stanley worries about his own job, and the responsibility of working at just 18. His aunt and cousins worry about the burden of being dependent on someone else. And Eugene bears all of this with good humor and quite a perceptive sense of irony.
Theater J’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs” is a seamless, funny, nostalgic, joyful, and heartbreaking portrayal of adolescence and the real adult problems that accelerate it.
Shows with such a young cast (more than half the characters are under the age of 19) run the risk of hiring people either too old or too inexperienced to effectively convey the feelings of the characters. This is not the case with Theater J’s production–in fact, one of the highlights is Cole Sitilides’ absolute embodiment of Eugene’s naivety and brilliant sense of humor. He lands every joke, his delivery note perfect, right down to the heavy Brooklyn accent. His narration and presence essentially carry the play, framing the rest of the action.
The other young actors are equally adept. Bourelly, for instance, shows every ounce of the desperation of a young girl trying to make things better for her family. The frustration she feels at being told to stay in school instead of pursue her dreams is palpable. Makl, who plays her younger sister, has a good sense of comedic timing, and a really difficult character to play, as Laurie is fairly strange, unfiltered, opinionated, and extremely sheltered. Pendry’s character, Stanley, is the only one of the young ones dealing with really adult problems–the risk of getting fired, for instance–but Pendry manages to convey the contrast between those problems and Stanley’s relative youth with finesse and clarity.
As for the adults, their roles are equally well-done. Rome brings a complexity to the role of Kate that makes the character seem completely real–caring, hardworking, frustrated, and full of her own cares and worries that she subsumes to take care of others. Glenn, as her husband Jack, shines as this impossibly wise, but unfailingly normal man tasked with tremendous responsibility. As Blanche, Bruneau is so full of neuroses and insecurities that her moments of self-confidence are truly startling.
Set Designer Luciana Stecconi has much to be proud of with this production, as she reproduced in detail a small home in 1930s Brooklyn. It includes two floors, a staircase, a living room, three beds, old-fashioned Victorian wallpaper, and even an antique sewing machine.
Theater J’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs” is a seamless, funny, nostalgic, joyful, and heartbreaking portrayal of adolescence and the real adult problems that accelerate it. Despite its length (running over two hours, not including intermission), it never feels boring, or stilted. It manages to convey both Simon’s sense of humor and that wholly Jewish message of survival and hospitality in the face of adversity, making it a perfect addition to Theater J’s lineup.
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including 1 intermission.
Advisory: Adult language and mature topics pertaining to coming of age.
“Brighton Beach Memoirs” is playing at Theater J, in Washington, D.C., through May 7, 2017. For more information, click here.