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'Brighton Beach Memoirs'

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 26, 1986


Gene Saks
Jonathan Silverman;
Blythe Danner;
Bob Dishy;
Brian Brillinger;
Stacey Glick;
Judith Ivey;
Lisa Waltz
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent

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THE JOYS of Jewish mothering are not lost on Neil Simon, whose nostalgic stage hit "Brighton Beach Memoirs" is a veritable testament to the nudging and kvetching that can turn a growing boy into a guilt-ridden young writer.

Unfortunately the screen adaptation finds Blythe Danner, an actress who doesn't know kvetch from kreplach, in the crucial mother's role. Danner is a frail, wispy-haired blonde who only whines -- which is kvetching without commitment. Of course, some real-life Jewish mothers can and do look like she does -- but not mythic ones, the sort we imagine sweeping stoops and making potato knishes in Brooklyn in the late '30s. She should be a strong, substantial matriarch, a center around which the family -- and, in this case, the Simon screenplay --

revolves. Without the dominating mother, the film is out of focus and the hero, 15-year-old Eugene Morris Jerome, lacks a worthy adversary.

"Brighton Beach" is a precocious family portrait from Eugene's adolescent-eye view. The young author, a semi-autobiographical figment of Simon's pubescence, is a sweet all-American kid who just wants to look up his cousin Nora's dress. "Actually, I'd give up writing if I could see a naked girl while I was eating ice cream," he confesses in one of his asides to the audience. (Is there a topless Haagen-Dazs scooper in the house?)

Jonathan Silverman, who made his Broadway debut in the role of Eugene, reprises the part of the insider on the outside looking in. His sardonic asides are a running commentary on the various sibling rivalries, parent-child conflicts and economic uncertainties that plague this Depression-era family and threaten to tear them apart. Eugene's weary father (Bob Dishy) and his good-natured older brother (Brian Drillinger) support Eugene and his mother, as well as his wimpy widowed aunt (Judith Ivey) and her daughters Nora (Lisa Waltz) and Laurie (Stacy Glick).

Aside from Danner and Ivey, who's also miscast, performances are steady if uninspired. Silverman is engaging but hasn't yet learned to work the camera like the crowd. But all their efforts hardly matter given the surprisingly unsteady pace set by Tony award-winning director Gene Saks, who collaborated with Simon on the successful film versions of "The Odd Couple" and "Barefoot in the Park." Caught between the strictures of stage and the freedoms of film, Saks and Simon (and producer Ray Stark) compromise with an amorphous hybrid that's stagey and forced. -- Rita Kempley. BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS (PG-13) -- At area theaters.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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