Monday, October 26, 2009

Brighton Beach Memoirs


By Neil Simon, Directed by David Cromer. At the Nederlander Theater. (CLOSED)

In one of the few instances where reviews of a non-auteurist work actually discuss a play's direction in depth, critics debate the merits of David Cromer's naturalistic, non-shticky take on Brighton Beach Memoirs, with most agreeing that he uncovers previously-unseen depths in Neil Simon's massive 1983 hit. Yea-sayers dig the way the show wraps itself warmly around its audience like a snuggie, and are appreciative of Cromer's approach, which blunts some of the aggravating and overly ingratiating edges of Simon's script. The unmoved this time around are Stephanie Zacharek and John Simon: Simon doesn't like what he sees as a not-Jewish-enough production, while one suspects Zacharek wouldn't like Brighton Beach Memoirs if it contained a musical number midway through praising her by name.

Newsday A+
(Linda Winer) With his beautifully cast and calibrated production, Cromer keeps the pace and rhythm of Simon's humor while recognizing shadows more often seen in American tragedies by Arthur Miller. Narrator Eugene - played with astonishing maturity and affection by gifted newcomer Noah Robbins - doesn't miss the inbuilt jokes about the horrors of broiled liver and puberty, and diseases too scary to be spoken aloud. But we never are allowed to forget that the laughs are attached to a price.

TalkinBroadway A
(Matthew Murray) The real question about this production and the partner-in-crime sequel with which it’s about to run in rep under the title The Neil Simon Plays, Broadway Bound (slated to open next month), was whether its other-kind-of-visionary director would be able to match Simon laugh for laugh and tear for tear. The answer, I’m happy to report, is an emphatic yes.

TheaterMania A
(Brian Scott Lipton) As he's proved with his recent acclaimed productions of Elmer Rice's Adding Machine and Thornton Wilder's Our Town, Cromer's particular gifts as a director are to bring even the most theatrical characters to recognizable and fully-dimensional life and to establish a particular rhythm for the world they inhabit. And here, even when Cromer must embrace the occasional over-jokiness of Simon's mostly heartfelt script, he wisely downplays the work's sitcom-like qualities to focus on the human drama. In the production's best moments, there's a sense that we have dropped in, unobserved, on an endangered species in their natural habitat. (Cromer even encourages the actors at times to talk over each other or turn their backs to the audiences.)

Variety A
(David Rooney) It's easy to imagine Brighton Beach becoming either mawkish or sitcommy in the wrong hands. But Cromer has wisely opted not to direct it as comedy shaded by poignant moments, instead taking the more sober reverse approach of treating the play as a family drama leavened by humor. That choice pays off beautifully. The cast is on the exact same wavelength; they play the characters, not the jokes, so while there's plenty of Simon's trademark wisecracks and one-liners, they are not the engine. What drives the play is the humanity and compassion, virtues and failings of the very real people onstage, and the constant collision of love, anxiety and frustration that shapes their relationships.

Washington Post A
(Peter Marks) 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.

Backstage A
(Erik Haagensen) Cromer's clean, straightforward direction happily shuns all shtick. Even better, he has cast well. Of course, without a Eugene there is no play (the role made a star out of Matthew Broderick), and here we get the terrific Noah Robbins, making an auspicious Broadway debut at only 19. Robbins take control like a seasoned veteran. His rock-solid comic timing is nevertheless integrated into a detailed, finely nuanced characterization of this young man struggling to discover himself. He and the charismatic Santino Fontana as Stanley have excellent rapport: Their scene in which Stanley enlightens Eugene about sexual matters is a highlight. As their cousins, Gracie Bea Lawrence charms as the dutiful Laurie, who isn't as sure about her heart's flutter as her mother is, and Alexandra Socha makes a strong impression as Nora, showing us the inner seething resentment that could easily lead this bright young girl down dangerous roads.

Time Out NY A
(David Cote) You could call it Odets with titty jokes, but humor is desperately needed in the Jerome household. Cromer and a simply superb cast (including Dennis Boutsikaris as father Jake, Jessica Hecht as Aunt Blanche and Santino Fontana as the older brother) take the hardship of the Depression-era period seriously, and don’t lean on the script’s sitcomish rhythms. By not treating Brighton Beach Memoirs as one of the author’s typical yukfests, the drama ends up being that much more hilarious.

(Roma Torre) When I first saw Brighton Beach Memoirs by Neil Simon 26 years ago, it was a comedy with drama. In the current revival, it's a drama with comedy. While the script is essentially the same with topnotch actors in both productions, the difference is the direction. David Cromer, fresh from his unique, naturalistic off-Broadway staging of "Our Town," applies his now trademark directorial magic to the Neil Simon classic. The result is triumphant, as just as it was a huge hit back then, it deserves to be once again

USAToday A
(Elysa Gardner) Simon's unabashedly sentimental account of all this is not the kind of stuff that gets deconstructed in college literature courses. Still, with the right combination of comic panache and gentle insight, it can be extremely winning — and this cast, lovingly directed by David Cromer, has both qualities in spades.

Lighting and Sound America A-
(David Barbour) [The play] is such a funny and touching experience because Cromer has presented the play straight up, no chaser. His achievement -- and it's a considerable one -- lies in his ability to get his talented company to enliven the play with a beautifully realized design and any number of telling bits of business. Simon's play is a sentimental, sepia-toned snapshot of his family as it never was -- a hard-working, battling, wisecracking Jewish-American tribe who get through each day of the Depression on sheer grit and tough love. The first of a series of darkercomedies rooted in the author's past, it's a decidedly uneven piece of work. Cromer doesn't try to hide any flaws; instead, he deepens this sometimes cartoonish family portrait by filling out a bit of color here and extending a shadow there, bringing out dimensions that hardly seemed to exist before.

The Chicago Tribune A-
(Chris Jones) In his distinguished and, frankly, very moving Broadway directing debut, David Cromer mostly does what he has been doing for years in little theaters all over Chicago. He tackles a tired, second-tier play — Neil Simon’s autobiographical Brighton Beach Memoirs — that has become clouded with contrivances, cliches and the stamps of star actors, and, in this particular case, expectations over the efficient deliveries of iconic one-liners. He strips all that nonsense away like so much cheap Broadway bark, and he rediscovers the actual, vulnerable Americans underneath. Cromer unlocks a big-hearted and aptly autumnal drama about the agonies of parenting, the rewards of loving your brother, the hopes and desires of youth, the confounding difficulty of keeping food on your extended family’s table in 1937, with the world on the cusp of war.

Entertainment Weekly A- Laughs are, after all, Simon's stock and trade. There are plenty of them in this fine revival, easily the best show of a young Broadway season. A lot of things may have changed in the last quarter century, but this show's punchlines still work.

Wall St. Journal B+
(Terry Teachout) I'm not going to try to tell you that all this effort has turned Brighton Beach Memoirs into a theatrical masterpiece. It's still a commercial comedy into which a freshening dollop of vinegar has been stirred. But by steering clear of coarse trickery, David Cromer has made the Jerome family seem immeasurably more real without diminishing the play's still-considerable entertainment value.

NYTimes B+
(Ben Brantley) In trying to subvert the cliché of the screaming Jewish family dinner, Mr. Cromer hasn’t come up with an alternative connective sensibility. I was often aware of a host of individual performances — some of them very artful — that didn’t necessarily link into the others. And there were times I felt an intellectual distance between the performers and their roles...Yet if this Memoirs seldom sings rousingly in its choral scenes, it often makes lovely music in its duets. Mr. Boutsikaris and Ms. Metcalf have several throwaway moments, involving little more than exchanged glances and half-gestures, that say much about why their characters’ marriage flourishes. Ms. Metcalf and Ms. Hecht have a gorgeous, underplayed scene of reconciliation that is one of the show’s high points.

New York Post B
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) If this revival works at all -- and mostly it does -- it's largely thanks to director David Cromer and his cast. In last year's Our Town, Cromer stripped away decades of saccharine to reveal an Americana imbued with both joy and melancholy dignity. Simon's play isn't as good as Thornton Wilder's, but the ensemble here goes for a similar tic-free vibe. Metcalf and Hecht, in particular, find gradations of doubt, pain and hope in one-note characters, while Robbins saves Eugene from being a mere wisecrack.

NY Daily News C+
(Joe Dziemianowicz) One can imagine what drew Cromer to Brighton Beach. Like Our Town, its story reaches into the cosmos. Which is why the show curtain is a page from Eugene's journal, pinpointing his place in the world: "... Brighton Beach, Borough of Brooklyn, Kings County ..." The personal turns universal. One wishes that this revival had found a way to better personalize itself. It'd make the notion of visiting the Jeromes again next month — when the companion play "Broadway Bound" is set to run in rep — more inviting, especially at $110 a pop.

NY Magazine D+
(Stephanie Zacharek) This revival, directed by David Cromer (Our Town), clearly tries to ease up on some of the play’s aggressive broadness while preserving its raucous, slightly crude spirit. But that broadness, like a persistent jack-in-the-box, can’t be tamped down for long, and the result is a wearying evening of squeezed-out laughs. Simon’s alter ego, the hormonally charged 15-year-old Eugene Morris Jerome, isn’t the hero of the play—he’s the tummler, working overtime to coax a response from the audience. The actor who portrays him here, a newcomer named Noah Robbins, fulfills Simon’s intent to the letter. He’s playing to the house pretty hard, especially during the extensive narration.

Bloomberg D
(John Simon) What the evening sorely lacks is aromatic Jewish-American inflection and idiomatic gesticulation, somewhat deficient even in the original production, presumably from fear of being mistaken for patronizing caricature, instead of recognized as leavening authenticity.

ND A+ 14 NY1 A 13; TB A 13; TM A 13; TONY A 13; BS A 13; V A 13; WAPO A 13; USA A 13; LSA A- 12; EW A- 12; TCT A- 12; WSJ B+ 11; NYT B+ 11; NYP B 10; NYDN C+ 8; NYMAG D+ 5; BB D 4; TOTAL = 203 / 18= 11.27 B+

1 comment:

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