Neil Simon is Broadway's most successful comedy writer because he's Broadway's most commercial comedy writer, embracing an audience rather than challenging it. His shows strive to get at least one laugh every 30 seconds, which leaves very little time for niceties of characterization and plot development. Simon tends to create broad character types, plop them into some absurd little situation and let them fight their discomfort with a barrage of wisecracks. These characters exist only on the stage; they come to the performance with no real history and cease to exist once the house lights come up.
Yet Simon transcended his self-imposed limitations beautifully in the 1980s when he wrote a trilogy of autobiographical plays, launched with Brighton Beach Memoirs. Here, the characters definitely exist beyond the play, with histories and futures--he's writing about his own family, after all. And at last Simon doesn't strain to cram in lots of jokes. Oh, there are plenty of funny lines, most of them honestly character-based rather than author-centered, but for a change, Simon has many minutes go by in which he lets himself write about real people, not characters in a Sid Caesar sketch.
If Brighton Beach Memoirs is one of Simon's best plays, it's getting a fully worthy production from the UA's Arizona Repertory Theatre. Well-cast, smartly directed, lovingly designed, it's almost enough to make some of us feel sorry about being so hard on Simon's other work. Almost.
Set in 1937 Brooklyn, the play pays a visit to Simon's childhood home. Except here, the family is named Jerome. Times are tough; besides having the Depression to worry about, the Jeromes have taken in some close relatives in hard times. So we meet not only 15-year-old Eugene (who will grow up to be Neil Simon), his older brother, Stanley, and his parents, Kate and Jack, but also Kate's sister Blanche Morton, and her daughters, Nora and Laurie.
Increasing the tension is the speculation that the family's Polish relatives may soon flee Europe--not a good place to be Jewish in 1937--and land in New York needing a place to stay. Because Blanche, a youngish widow, hasn't been able to find a job to support herself and her daughters, Jack works two exhausting jobs, and son Stanley has bypassed college in order to contribute to the family income. (This being 1937, Kate stays home, her hands already full running the household.)
All at once, two little crises hit the family. Stanley is about to lose his job if he doesn't apologize for the rough way he stood up for a fellow employee, while Nora has a chance to earn some money--by quitting high school and joining the cast of a Broadway musical. Not the sort of pursuit the adults in the family approve of.
Young Eugene stands at the fringes of all this, but he seems central to the action, because he's closely reporting it all to his diary. Eugene, you see, already aspires to be a famous writer, if he doesn't manage to become a famous baseball player first. Before that happens, his greatest desire is to see a naked girl. Or have some ice cream for dessert. Better yet, see a naked girl while eating ice cream.
The family faces some serious issues that Simon doesn't take too lightly. Stanley may lose his job because he acted on principle, but can this family afford principles right now? Should Blanche, who can't support herself, consort with an alcoholic Irish suitor across the street with an eye to marriage?
Most of the family members, except perhaps for the pampered but not obnoxious Laurie (she has a "heart flutter" and isn't even required to set the dinner table), have a keen sense of responsibility to the household and each other. So, sure, we get plenty of that warm-fuzzy feeling from watching a close family in action, but we also get heat from the friction that results from people living too closely together.
Director Brent Gibbs strikes an easy equilibrium between comedy and not-comedy ("drama" may slightly overstate the case), with every scene maintaining just the right tone, the action slithering smoothly among the members of what seems to be a very real family. (The actors owe their spot-on Brooklyn accents to dialect coach Dianne J. Winslow, one of the unsung heroes of the UA theater arts department.)
J. Michael Trautmann, about to begin his senior year at the UA, is absolutely remarkable as the precocious, hormonally unbalanced 15-year-old Eugene. Like Matthew Broderick, he may get stuck playing kids until he's 30, but right now, he's making the most of his casting as Eugene, balancing his natural boyishness with a substantial emotional range. Trautmann works especially well with Scott Reynolds as Stanley; the two naturally convey a complex mixture of brotherly love and sibling rivalry. And if you want laughs, just eavesdrop on their discussion of masturbation.
Community actors Carlisle Ellis and Dwayne Palmer are especially welcome presences as Eugene's parents. Palmer gets it just right as the exhausted, exasperated but fair paterfamilias, and somehow Ellis makes Kate's Jewish-mother pronouncements sound almost reasonable. (Eugene complains when she sends him back to the store for more butter when he could have bought double on his previous trip that morning. "Suppose the house were to burn down this afternoon," she retorts. "What am I going to do with that extra quarter-pound of butter?")
Laura Ann Herman, Kate FitzGibbons and Laine Peterson, as the Morton women, all contribute substantially to the production's success, as does Sally Day's detailed scenic design, a warm little chunk of Brighton Beach dropped into Tucson. And Jennifer Dasher's costumes look like clothes that people would actually have worn in that time and place, not some secondhand-store grab-bag.
The UA promises to produce the remainder of Simon's trilogy over the next two summers with the same actors. Now, that's some Neil Simon worth looking forward to.