Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs, the play that launched an autobiographically inspired trilogy, is now 30. That’s older than four of the seven talented actors bringing the bittersweet comedy back to life this month at Stage Door Theatre in Coral Springs. Yet though the play premiered in 1983 and is set in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach neighborhood in 1937, there is nothing dated about it.
Playwright Simon’s stand-in, in Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound, is an aspiring writer named Eugene Morris Jerome (Josh Lerner). In this first play of the trilogy, he’s a precocious 15-year-old, an articulate kid with a wry sense of humor and an insatiable curiosity about girls and sex. Mostly, Eugene turns to his older brother Stanley (Alex Salup) for advice, because the boys’ dad Jack (Matthew Korinko) is too weary from working multiple jobs as he tries to support a Depression-era household of seven.
The others in the Jeromes’ tidy two-story home are matriarch Kate (Merry Jo Cortada), a woman who has opinions about everyone’s business and sees through all of her sons’ schemes; Kate’s introverted, widowed sister Blanche (Elizabeth Simmons); Blanche’s restless elder daughter Nora (Mary Sansone), a would-be dancer; and Nora’s little sis Laurie (Hannah Wiser), a kid who uses a nearly imperceptible heart murmur to get out of doing much of anything.
Brighton Beach Memoirs is a tender yet still potent play because its humor and conflict flow from the timeless truths that so many families in close quarters would recognize. Dependent Blanche feels like an interloper, and though Kate and Jack are all about taking care of their extended family, they’re sacrificing privacy. For the kids, there’s a tension between education and getting their lives started. Prejudice factors into the play too, as Jewish Kate spews vitriol about the family’s Irish neighbors.
Director Dan Kelley has assembled a cast that serves Simon’s play well, with the actors mining just about all of the script’s humor, poignant moments and squabbling.
Lerner, who will begin his junior year in high school at the end of the summer, is just the right age to play Eugene, but what makes his performance so winning are his eagerness, warmth and observant intelligence. Salup, a senior at Florida Atlantic University, conveys the myriad worries of a young man forced to play an adult role before he’s quite ready. Sansone is no petulant teen, but she plays one convincingly, and Wiser is a wise-beyond-her-years Laurie.
As for the adults, though Cortada and Korinko are a mismatch age-wise, they are easy to accept as a couple bonded in their mutual quest to hold the family together. Korinko’s Jack is a quintessential father figure, worn out yet genuine in his empathy for those he loves. Kate is the all-knowing Jewish mother, a tough woman who is sometimes anything but likeable, and Cortada fearlessly explores Kate’s extremes. Simmons’ Blanche persuasively comes into her own near the end of the play, but during the first act the actress plays her character as a colorless cipher.
South Florida’s summer theater offerings, usually jam-packed with options, are looking rather barren this year. All the more reason to check out Stage Door’s take on Simon’s coming-of-age play.