Theater Reviews

Broadway notebook: "Brighton Beach Memoirs" and "The Royal Family"

ALL IN THE FAMILY: The cast of "Brighton Beach Memoirs."
ALL IN THE FAMILY: The cast of "Brighton Beach Memoirs." (Joan Marcus/associated Press)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 26, 2009

NEW YORK -- Let's hear it for the boys! To get a most endearing glimpse into the fumbling rites of passage for guys on the verge of manhood, look to the terrific interactions of Noah Robbins and Santino Fontana in Broadway's handsomely crafted new revival of "Brighton Beach Memoirs."

Robbins and Fontana portray the alternately cantankerous and commiserating teenage brothers in the new staging of Neil Simon's 1983 autobiographical comedy that officially opened Sunday night at the Nederlander Theatre, under the precision guidance of director David Cromer.

Simon has always been a nonpareil joke writer. But at times in his long and prolific career, it's a facility that has gotten in the way of his efforts to penetrate the psyche's deeper caverns. Cromer's accomplishment is to assert some of the work's other qualities, to strike a balance between its wiseacre veneer and its aspirations to poignancy. He does allow the actors their fair share of robust laughs -- particularly Robbins, in the role that once made a star of a young Matthew Broderick. Yet the punch lines no longer leave the impression that they have a stranglehold on the evening.

It feels like an eternity since a work by Simon has received this level of trenchant treatment in New York. (A revival of his Pulitzer Prize-winning "Lost in Yonkers," at Washington's Theater J, will be reviewed later this week.) And it also seems as if there's suddenly a welcome mat out on Broadway for vintage comedy, what with the opening recently at Manhattan Theatre Club of an often enjoyable revival of "The Royal Family," George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's screwball slice of theatrical life.

The new production of that classic 1927 comedy, about the daft members of a teetering Broadway acting clan, doesn't achieve consistent buoyancy, except when it is floating on the talents of the remarkable Rosemary Harris and Jan Maxwell, as an elderly mother and middle-aged daughter who can't seem to get drama out of their systems. And even though some other performances feel too contemporary, it's quite fun being immersed in the play's frothy machinations, in the vanity and pettiness of the Cavendish family and the tornadoes they whip up out of mere breezes.

Of course, "The Royal Family's" carbonated lampoon of self-dramatizing theater types stands in marked contrast to the seriocomic mechanics of "Brighton Beach Memoirs." Cromer's meticulous approach to Simon turns on the day-to-day hardships of keeping food on the table for an extended lower-middle-class family in Depression-era Brooklyn. His strategy adds emotional weight to the performances, not only for the younger actors but also for such well-cast veterans as Laurie Metcalf and Dennis Boutsikaris, playing the boys' parents.

Their determination to hold the household together seems a valiant act. When Boutsikaris's warmly even-keeled Jack asks his wife, "When does our life get easier?" you reflect on how many other people, then as now, are wondering the same thing.

And most crucially, Cromer has allowed Robbins to discover his own idea of Eugene Morris Jerome, the character who converses directly with us. Portraying a precocious 15-year-old yearning to be a writer, the diminutive Robbins -- actually 19 and from Potomac -- isn't resorting to mimicry of Broderick's effortless glibness. His Eugene is scrappier, more naturally kidlike, the type who may be able to crack up an entire class but isn't as smart as he thinks he is. That he's a hilarious foil for his mother, Kate, played by Metcalf with just a scary hint of prison matron, makes a lot of sense.

Set designer John Lee Beatty's scrupulously realistic evocation of the Jeromes' house, which Eugene's family shares with the brood of Kate's widowed sister, Blanche (Jessica Hecht), is an excellent match for the detail work in the performances. Some of the evening's most pleasurable interludes take place on the second floor of the house, in the bedroom Eugene shares with his older brother, Fontana's Stanley.

The scenes between them radiate such a natural intimacy, it's almost as if you're listening through the keyhole. Much of what they talk about has to do with sex. Shocking, I know. Yes, we've been there, done that on a hundred nights of theater- and movie-going. Good acting, however, persuades you that you're hearing such an exchange for the first time. Here, Stanley's explanations and Eugene's credulous reactions play out as a freshly funny take.

Fontana is a find as Stanley, immensely likable and thoroughly convincing in the character's struggle between his selfish impulses and his fiscal obligations to the family.

"Brighton Beach Memoirs" is actually the story of two families and the conflicts that living on the edge of poverty creates for both. The secondary tale of Blanche and her two daughters, restless Nora (Alexandra Socha) and overindulged Laurie (Gracie Bea Lawrence), does not resonate on this outing with anything close to the force of Eugene and Stanley's. Part of this is Simon's fault: The buildup to the confrontation between Blanche and Nora seems an appendix to the more pressing concerns of the play.

Even so, Hecht, as the timid Blanche, makes a sympathetic impact, and the resentment that festers in Metcalf's Kate over the care of her sister and her children does come to a satisfying boil. As with so many of the crises transpiring in this intense and entertaining homestead, you'll find yourself hoping this storm can be weathered and the family finds the safe harbor it craves.

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