Tuesday, June 22, 2010
Theater review: Brighton Beach Memoirs at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas
CTD understand the complexities Neil Simon offers as a playwright that many critics and theatres overlook.
Neil Simon's autobiographically-based play Brighton Beach Memoirs is quite a magnificent play that is getting a solid treatment at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas (playing through July 3). This play by Simon is seen by many as quite a departure from his earlier comedies. There is an intense realism that imbues this work far and above many of his earlier scripts. It also is a play dealing with the troubles of a lower class Jewish family living in during pre WWII Brooklyn.
Eugene is the plucky a boy of 15 going through puberty. He also serves as the narrator and delivers commentary. He has an older brother who nearly loses his job due brashly standing up for his principles; a sister who has been diagnosed with a heart "flutters" that is overly protected. He also has a mother who tries to do everything right and sacrifices her own needs for everyone else around her; a father who isn't very successful at his job; a severely myopic aunt who wallows in the failure of her marriage even though her husband had died.
Lastly, a cousin who he develops the "hots" for is a problematic teenager, for she thinks of herself as all grown up even though she is only 16. The dramas that this family faces may seem trivial if compared to the tragedies of Sophocles, but to each character their problems are very real. Even though the play takes place in another era, the difficulties each character has are as painfully real and as palpable to us today.
The genius behind this play is that it simultaneously allows the audience to laugh at the foibles of the characters and their situations, while making us ache in the recognition that they are us. The term "everyman" is used to describe characters that represent all humans. In this instance the term "every family" best captures those inhabiting this household.
To launch a successful Neil Simon comedy the cast must play it straight. The humor is there, but it becomes more pronounced as the small personal tragedies are presented. Play it for comedy and Neil Simon's scripts are simply amusing entertainment. Play it for the intense drama, and the script becomes ferociously funny and the plays become transcendental. In this area CTD's production is a bit of a mixed bag. Act I is played for every joke. Act II is played straight and in turn it brings some of the biggest laughs and brought about many tears.
Act I is very good and nicely done. But here the actors delivered their lines knowing the punch lines would get laughs. Every joke landed. Was it enjoyable? Absolutely. Was it successful? Not as much. Up to that point, the play seemed like a breezy piece of theatre. I personally didn't feel as connected to the characters, though I was amused. Act II brought much more intense laughter, and I felt for these characters I cried as I laughed. The effect was mesmerizing. Had the same thing happened in Act I, the evening would have become monumental. As it was, the overall feel I had as I left the theatre was having had experienced a very good and solid production.
Eugene is played by the young actor Andrews W. Cope. He does a wonderful job in entertaining us and amusing us. He is utterly charming and the audience fell in love with him. What he lacked in gravitas he made up by shear chutzpah. He is adorable. The only slightly disconcerting thing about his performance was his use of his voice. It is stated in the script that his voice is "breaking." He overplayed it. He has a naturally lower voice, so his constant use of falsetto sounded a bit like Gilbert Gottfried, which at times was distracting. What he does express quite magnificently is his love for his family.
Diane Worman plays the aunt role of Blanch. There is no doubt she is a very good actress, so I was slightly surprised though that she was having a slightly off performance. While she captured the physicality perfectly, and delivers a flawless Brooklyn/Jewish accent, I felt that she wasn't listening to the other actors as their lines were delivered. While she expressed volumes in her own emotions, she wasn't reactive to the proceedings on stage. She tended to respond too quickly to her cues and not always acknowledge what had just been stated by the other characters.
Ms. Worman is very much sought after actress because she is superb. I have a feeling this was just one of those off nights that happens to actors from time to time. I doubt that this will carry through the rest of the shows. She had some truly powerful moments in the evening, but she was slightly inconsistent.
Cindee Mayfield is a treasure in the role of Kate. She is on the go non-stop. When her meltdown happened chills ran up my spine. She commanded the stage. She was visceral and full of truth. She is the matriarch that is holding the family together as they cope with the financial hardships. Her distress is palpable. I felt her sweat as she agonized over her son losing the much-needed $17 in a poker game. In that moment she captured both the intense disappointment in her son, her extreme love for him, and her despair in dealing with a situation that was completely out of her control.
Jourdan Stein plays Laurie perfectly. She is coddled and knows it. She could easily be played as a brat, but she made her character sympathetic. Her depth of portrayal for what could have been a one-dimensional character was delightful to see, especially from such a young actor.
Marla Jo Kelly as Nora did a beautiful portrayal of the young cousin Nora. She was as true a teen as we can find today. I happen to know that she is too old to play 16, yet she completely embodied the physicality and temperament. I believed her from the moment she stepped on stage. She transformed herself.
Will Christoferson as Stanley is phenomenal. As the older brother he captured the essence of being the "I know it all" attitude, while also acknowledging that he is still quite green in the ways of the world. His performance was emotionally rich and complex. He also has a magnetic stage presence that makes it difficult to take your eyes off of him. Truly one of the best performances I've seen all year. I can't wait to see Christoferson in another show. Words cannot express enough how impressed I was by this newcomer to the Dallas stage.
The only person that could top this sensational cast is Doug Jackson as the father. His Jack is so nuanced, so true, so absolutely convincing it seemed as though he wasn't acting. His one scene with Will Christopher as he dispenses advice was so full of love and heartbreak, plus the weight of the world at being a disappointment to his own family, that I couldn't stop crying. Yet throughout it all he still delivers some very funny lines, but they are painfully funny. This is a performance that as an audience member I will cherish forever. Mr. Jackson is a master of his craft and to see him paired up to Mr. Christoferson who also matched him in his level of honesty and complexity was theatre magic.
Technically, CTD delivers, as always. Michael Serrecchia's direction is seamless. He created wonderful stage pictures that emphasized the emotional connection of the characters. Keep in mind that this family is living in a small and crowded house.
Rodney Dobbs recreated perfectly the cramped home, which left very little space for the actors to move around, yet Serrechia used this lack of space to display the cabin fever that was developing in the home.
Jason Foster's lighting also helped enhance those areas that required the audience's attention and focus without being obvious.
Aaron Patrick Turner's costuming was also spot-on; he captured the era. If I have one quibble is in Eugene's costuming, for it looked still too new and clean. It was period correct, but a kid that plays baseball -- even though he does it by himself for his own self amusement -- wouldn't have such clean-looking britches.
Other then that he captured the essence of each character. His choice for Blanch's dress as she awaits her dress was exquisite. Her dress looked like what someone from that era would wear if they tried to look nice and didn't have enough money. Blanch is a seamstress and the dress looked exactly like something she would have sewn for herself at home.
Richard Frohlich's sound design is minimal in this show. The use of music did set up the moods perfectly.
I must say that CTD is quickly establishing itself as a place to go see Neil Simon plays. Their "Chapter Two" last year is still, in my estimation, one of the best productions I've ever seen. I notice that they plan to do Barefoot in the Park next season.
They "get" Neil Simon. They understand the complexities he offers as a playwright that many critics and theatres overlook. It is wonderful to see CTD devote so much stage time to this playwright. And they should since they do it so well.
Brighton Beach Memoirs is an example of Neil Simon done well ... make that VERY well.
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column
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