I was really saddened to hear of the sudden closing of BRIGHTON BEACH ME MOIRS as it was a rare bright spot in a mostly dismal Broadway season so far. The direction of David Cromer deserved the kudos he got for the revival OUR TOWN, which, frankly, left me cold. Cromer’s acting of the Stage Manager was too intrusively hectoring, giving an unwonted “edge” to the play which robbed it of its existential soulfulness and quiet beauty, and there were serious aesthetic issues, like having the mothers wearing pantsuits at the wedding of Emily and George, as well as casting missteps, like an off-putting, much too mature actress as Emily. (Martha Scott, who originated the role on Broadway in 1938, was also too old by the time she made the film of it in 1940, but did manage to retain a certain authentic starry-eyed fervor.)
With BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS, however, Cromer’s intent digging into the text really paid off in emotional terms. I was frankly rather dreading an evening of Neil Simon, but found myself completely involved in the economically strapped travails of the Jerome family and even shed a tear or two during the wrenching leave=taking scene between older brother Stanley (Santino Fontana, a piercingly real, smashing find of a young actor) and young Eugene (Noah Robbins, who managed to be really funny, natural and touching, besides completely ridding his cliched narrator/commentator role of any rote, noxious urban precocity). I doubt that there will be a more magically moving onstage moment this year than when Eugene takes Stanley’s old sports medal as a departing keepsake.
Santino Fontana and Noah Robbins
Ben Brantley’s dismissal of Laurie Metcalf’s performance as Mrs. Jerome in the New York Times was doubtlessly a definite coffin nail for this production (although some have even surmised that it was Neil Simon himself who pulled the plug, not liking it as being too dark and not funny enough). Once more, Brantley misses the boat, besides possibly needing glasses, or a stronger prescription if he already wears them, as witness two off-the-wall recent observations of his, the first in his review of THE ROYAL FAMILY in which he described Catherine Zuber’s abysmal costumes, which included a pashmina shawl for Rosemary Harris that looked as if it had been picked up from a Times Square street vendor, as “mouth-watering.” In his review of BYE BYE BIRDIE, he actually cited a physical resemblance between Gina Gershon and Ava Gardner, the most gorgeous white woman who ever lived. Gershon maybe recalls Yvonne DeCarlo, at best, Gardner, never.
Metcalf, always a forthright, vivid actress, played her part with an unsentimental toughness; her anger and exasperation gave a fresh spin to her dominating, eternally wrongheaded Yiddische mama lines and the sympathy she assuredloy evoked from tthe audience was as admirably hard-won as it was genuine. Dennis Boutsikaris was blessedly handsome (thereby making his wife’s jealousy believable) and understated as Papa Jerome, avoiding the eyeball-rolling corn inherent in this all-wise paterfamilias role right out of Andy Hardy’s never-wrong, sage Judge of a father. Jessica Hecht, that intelligent actress, made her strongest, most poignant impression to date as the spinster aunt possessed of an endearingly annoying wheezy laugh and sudden terror when her sister decides to lend her a special necklace for an all-important date. The gawky, terrified way Hecht ran away from the bauble as if it was a brandished gun was but one of the myriad behavorial felicities of Cromer’s direction.
The closing of this show is not only a shame but an outright indictment of producer lack of faith as well as the Broadway audience, itself, who crave movie stars in idiotic plays (see A STEADY RAIN) or the lowest form of musicals (see MAMMA MIA!) over a play which, although set during the Depression, addresses the current economic situation and its devastating impact on a family with heart and humor in a way that could speak to everyone, even those clueless tourists currently crowding Times Square, impeding true New Yorkers’ progress and avidly dropping bucks at the Hershey’s store. BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS was the kind of a show that might have built up a special word of mouth, but, obviously, nobody cared enough.
Onward to (shudder) SPIDERMAN!