This weekend, The Newtowne Players brought to their audiences another Neil Simon classic with the opening of “Brighton Beach Memoirs.” I had the opportunity to ask Director Christopher Joyce a few quick questions about his experience as a director as they brought this iconic classic to life.
Christopher Joyce moved to Southern Maryland when he was 12, and started getting involved with local theatre at Leonardtown High School. Other than his dad’s weird and silly Christmas plays that he and his brothers performed for their family when they were young, the first play that he performed in was Neil Simon’s “Fools”. This is where he fell in love with the laughter and the camaraderie that comes with being in a show. Later, he joined up with The Newtowne Players, first performing as a puppeteer for the maniacal plant Audrey II in “Little Shop of Horrors.” After getting a reputation as a reliably weird character actor at Three Notch Theatre, he eventually got the chance to direct “A Streetcar Named Desire” last year. Ever since “Fools”, he wanted to participate in another Neil Simon play. So, when he saw the interest at NTP in performing “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” he jumped at the chance to throw his hat in the ring to direct it.
“Brighton Beach Memoirs” will be playing at Newtowne Players in Lexington Park, MD from March 29th – April 14th, 2019. For more information, or to purchase tickets, please see here.
What made you choose to direct “Brighton Beach Memoirs?”
Neil Simon wrote a play that is often hysterically funny – but more importantly, it builds that humor on real, relatable characters and the family dynamic that I think has a wide appeal. I think the play also asks and answers important questions about empathy and charity for those we might consider “other,” which are extremely relevant these days.
Do you feel that the show is relevant to today’s audience? How?
“Brighton Beach Memoirs” features the fights and reconciliations that are common to many families. These fights arise from tensions due to being in a lower socioeconomic class (Jewish-American immigrants). The family debates with each other about whether they’re obliged to let refugees, escaping the violence and despair in happening in their native countries, into their house. All the laughs and heartwarming family moments of the show take place under the shadow of rising geopolitical turmoil (this show is set right before the Second World War). I would argue that this play is even more relevant today than it was when it premiered in 1982.
Did you face any difficulties as you sought to bring this show to life?
It’s always a challenge doing a show where we’re trying to evoke a very specific time period, in the costuming, the stage dressing, the acting decisions, etc. Luckily we have a very hardworking and knowledgeable crew at Newtowne which includes Kristina Faison, our costumer, and Wade Thompson, our set dresser. The biggest challenge was the fact that this script called for two floors, and the Newtowne stage is relatively small. Steve Pugh (set designer), Timothy Joyce (stage manager), and I came to the conclusion that we would have a second floor, raised a couple of feet and behind the living and dining rooms, and separate the upstage bedrooms with scrim walls, which are opaque when lit from the front and transparent when lit from behind. Many people have said that the effect, when combined with our great lighting design (done by Jay McKulka, Jr.), is quite striking, and I’m inclined to agree!
How has this experience grown you as a director?
After some time, I’ve come to the conclusion that “A Streetcar Named Desire” (the show I directed last year) is a melodrama- probably the best melodrama ever written, but Tennessee Williams calls for giant, explosive swings of raw emotion, perhaps at the expense of some subtlety. It was challenging in its own, equal way, and those actors worked just as hard and impressed just as much, but “Brighton Beach Memoirs” required a much more delicate touch from me personally. There’s no soul-crushing depression or volcanic hatred in Simon’s play, and so I had to ask my actors to do some very minute, careful study into their characters. They had to balance resentments and turmoil with the fact that, at the end of the day, this is a loving, tight-knit family. This is on top of the fact that humor, in general, can be incredibly difficult to pull off. Neil Simon’s script is amazingly funny and does a lot of the work, but the actors must understand intricately what sort of actions, movement, and line delivery will maximize the audience’s laughter while avoiding jumping the shark or getting out of character.
What is your favorite line from “Brighton Beach Memoirs?” Why?
Jack, the patriarch of the family, says to his son Stanley near the end of the show:
“You think your father’s a perfect human being? If you grow up thinking I was perfect, you’ll hate yourself for every mistake you ever make.”
I think this is a great line to capture the essence of the play- a lot of the tension of the show comes from unhealthy self-judgement, as well as misunderstanding those who are closest to you. In admitting his own faults, the father lets his son forgive and accept himself as someone who occasionally screws up but still tries to be a good person.