Neil Simon has written -- almost can't help writing, it sometimes seems -- funny plays. "Brighton Beach Memoirs," however, is his first endearing one.
An autobiographical account of growing up, poor and Jewish, in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn, it takes place just before World War II came along to drown out the rumble of the subway a street or two away. In the meantime, there is noise enough, as there is in any lower-class family struggling to keep principles together, peace under the roof, and cabbage and liver on the table.
Under the squabbling -- over matters as big as who will take out the garbage and as little as how the weekly bills will get paid -- lies a bedrock of decency. And love. Simon's characters cannot always bring themselves to say what's in their hearts, but their hearts are full nonetheless. "Brighton Beach Memoirs" is suffused with warmth for human beings and tender nostalgia for a time when the height of moral recklessness consisted of a young man blowing his $17 paycheck in a stockroom poker game. It is, if you will, the playwright's "Ah! Wilderness."
Still running on Broadway, the comedy opened a four-week run last night at the National Theater in a touring edition that, to be honest, has a few weak links in the cast. None is so weak, however, as to jeopardize the evening's appeal. And with Patrick Dempsey, the producers have found an engaging young actor to follow in the footsteps of Matthew Broderick, as 15-year-old Eugene (read Simon himself). Eugene, who serves as the play's narrator and the family's general scapegoat, is barreling his way through puberty with all the grace of an ox. Sex both amazes and horrifies him. So does the rest of his existence.
But he's already developed an awareness of the absurdities and inequities of communal living, and while he expresses it for the time being in the form of an adolescent yowl or an exasperated shrug, you can see that one day he'll become a shrewd writer (if his baseball career doesn't work out). Dempsey makes a goofily alert observer in this house of comic woe.
The problems do pile up fast. Stanley (Brian Drillinger), the elder son, has had a row with his boss and is on the verge of being fired, whereas Jack (Richard Greene), the father, has actually lost one of his two jobs and is heading for a heart attack. Kate (Lynn Milgrim), the mother, tries not to fret -- not until the dinner dishes have been cleared, at any rate. But she does take the precaution of buying butter by the quarter pound -- a stick in the morning, then a stick in the evening -- because, as she points out, "suppose the house burned down this afternoon."
It looks as if self-effacing Aunt Blanche (Rocky Parker), who moved in three years earlier after the death of her husband, is never going to move out. One of her daughters (Skye Bassett) is a pampered brat, who claims heart flutters as an excuse to avoid any household chores. The other, 16-year-old Nora (Lisa Waltz), seems to think she's destined for Broadway stardom and wants to drop out of high school. In addition to which, Eugene needs new sneakers.
Simon has always built his comedies on the trials of marriage and the tribulations of family. Odd couples all, his characters invariably exacerbate one another's nerves. Discomfiture is a constant theme in his work. He even went so far in "God's Favorite" as to write his own version of the Book of Job. If the extended family of "Brighton Beach Memoirs" is under no less of an assault, it has resources at its command that Simon has only suggested before. "The world doesn't survive without families," says the mother. It's her assumption -- shared by all the characters, in fact -- that no problem is so huge it can't be overcome by sticking together (and cleaning one's dinner plate). As for being charitable toward the neighbors, that's another matter.
Quite the nicest moments in the play are those in which bickering relatives are reconciled and emerge stronger and wiser for what they've been through. Values are being forged, examples set. Understanding is within everyone's grasp and self-pity is no one's prerogative. It's a rosy picture of poverty, perhaps, but audiences are sure to welcome it as an antidote to the prevailing view of indigence as an inescapable hell.
In that respect, Milgrim's brusque mannerisms as the mother are enlightening. Seemingly, she has no time for idle coddling and she runs her house rather like a drill sergeant. But the actress makes it obvious -- even as she bellows at Eugene, "Stop that yelling, I have a cake in the oven" -- that maintaining order is a way of expressing love. Drillinger is wonderfully hangdog as the elder son; you know he truly regrets his peccadilloes, just as you know he's going to go right on committing them. And when Waltz's Nora confesses her pent-up emotions of feeling unloved, her foolish dreams of starring on Broadway are suddenly touchingly comprehensible.
Two performances come in slightly under the mark, though. Greene makes the father all too affable all too soon. He's hardly a patriarch to inspire trepidation, which is what the character must do before he does anything else. Parker plays the mousy side of Aunt Blanche well enough, but her graduation to independence doesn't wash. When she and Milgram finally vent sisterly antagonisms, long dormant, the confrontation seems awfully lopsided.
But the shortcomings do not seriously alter Simon's vision. There may be rubbish and watermelon rinds on Brighton Beach. There is also a lot of healing sunshine.
BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS. By Neil Simon. Directed by Gene Saks; sets, David Mitchell; lighting, Tharon Musser; costumes, Patricia Zipprodt. With Skye Bassett, Patrick Dempsey, Brian Drillinger, Richard Greene, Lynn Milgrim, Rocky Parker, Lisa Waltz. At the National through Jan. 6.