Theater J(ust Wait)

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I accidentally cut off the lamppost and the head of the girl at the top

I feel bad for three reasons. #1) I saw this play a week ago and didn’t have time to write a review for it until now. #2) I’m giving it a complicated review. Not bad per se, but not excellent. #3) The review itself is a little choppy (and I use way too many parentheticals).

Last Wednesday, at the Pay What You Can Preview, I saw Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs at Theater J, directed by Matt Torney.

If y’all don’t know Brighton Beach Memoirs, let me give you a little taste. Eugene (played by Cole Sitilides) is a baseball-, boobs-, and book-obsessed kid of 14 years living in a house with his mother, father, older brother, aunt, older female cousin, and younger female cousin. And basically they all ran into money trouble on the same day. Eugene more or less narrates the story, providing exposition and asides, most of which are pretty humorous. I’m going to start with the acting and story here because this play is about the conflict and resolution of people in this one family.

The story, while mundane, while typical of a struggling family in Brooklyn in 1937, plays a little like a half-hour comedy on TV. There are a lot of twists and turns: romances sour and return, money ebbs and flows (mostly flows out of their hands), resolution tied with bow. Slowly, everything does turn out ok at the end, complete with a comedy button that would have fit in perfectly at the end of episode of I Love Lucy. It’s a serious show about serious topics, but there’s a airiness about it (and I’m not talking about the breeze off the beach).

Neil Simon is the king of one-liners, and Eugene really is the peanut gallery we need, but not the one we deserve right now. (We might deserve a little better than a horny kid at times).

The play is definitely a period-specific piece, so it requires an intense attention to detail to recreate a scene from 1937 Brooklyn in the home of Jewish-American family down on their luck. Here’s where this production lost me a little.

This play has four young actors playing the teenage sons and daughters of the family, and they’re required to do accents – 1937 Jewish-American Brooklyn accents. Some of them weren’t bad, others were merely unpracticed. Regardless, it was clear they had put in a lot of effort, but it wasn’t paying off all the time. They’ll get better.

That’s pretty much how I feel about this whole production: it’ll get better. The accents will get better, the comfort with the lines will get better, the relationships among the family will get better. This is the price I pay for not paying the price (aka going to pay what you can night).

It look a while for the cast to hit their stride, but it was the father, Jack, played by Michael Glenn, who I felt unified the family within the world of the play and also the cast as unit in this production. When the family all sat down for the dinner, I looked at the cast and said, “here’s a family, not a cast of actors.”

In fact, most of the actors impressed me in some way or another. I could identify with almost every character at certain times.

Maybe it’s because I have a sister, but the tension and love between Kate, the elder sister with two sons, played by Susan Rome, and Blanche, the younger sister with two daughters, played by Lise Bruneau, resonated with me. At its core, this is a show about relationships, and I look forward to the day when this production captures these relationships a little better. Everything is in place, but it needs time and practice to mature.

Before I move on to technical aspects, let me say a quick word about familial dramas aka dramas that take place usually in a central location in a family home and revolves around the members of the family. I hate them. They’re the worst. They drag on and on, and nothing is resolved or solved. It’s just characters clashing and yelling, and nothing comes of it.

Never once did I feel that way about this piece. By the end, I felt love exuding from this family. That’s what’s missing from too many familial dramas: love. It’s a family, so of course there’s going to be struggle. But Neil Simon and this production showed me a different side of a struggling family.

A very complete picture of a night in the life of a family is painted: no stone unturned, no minute left unaccounted for. The set played a large role in this.

When I walked in and saw the set for the first time, I saw it was a house made entirely of floral patterns. In each of the four rooms across the two levels was a new and distinct floral wallpaper. And in every room, it was peeling from the ceiling or the floor. There were lamps everywhere in the space and they were used, turned on and off constantly. It truly did seem like a family who was saving money by not replacing aging wallpaper and turning off lights as they left a room. It served the double purpose of directing the audience’s eye to the next bit of action in another room. I thought both the set and lighting design, by Luciana Stecconi and Colin K. Bills, respectively, were nice and ushered in the mood of Brighton Beach in 1937.

The costumes, designed by Ivania Stack, and hair/makeup did their job; they were clearly of a different time – I’m not certain it was 1937, but I also haven’t researched 1937 fashion extensively. Each time a man exited the house, he put on his hat. That’s notable. Not much else struck me about the costumes.

The sound and music, designed by James Bigbee Garver, was definitely still finding its groove (I’m not apologizing for that pun). Sometimes it was a bit too heavy-handed in both content and amplification. I could have done with a bit more subtlety.

Alright, we’ve reached the end of this review. Here’s my trouble. I know this play will be better than what I saw of it, but I can only assess the play I saw. So I’m giving it a 6/10, but I feel confident that it will reach an 8/10 during the course of its run. I enjoyed the story, I enjoyed moments, I enjoyed the ending. It just didn’t have the cohesion that it should, but I know that will come in time.

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