Memory lane 

Brighton Beach set to impress

I remember playing dress-up as a tween in my grandparents' basement while the adults chatted upstairs. We were in the middle of recreating the movie Labyrinth, when I was swiftly called to the adults who'd overheard me describing the bulging effect of David Bowie's tight sparkling pants to my cousins. I don't know how they heard me, but I was in trouble. And it was embarrassing. Thinking back, though, it never occurred to me to care much about what they were talking about. It would have all been boring adult stuff to me at the time.

click to enlarge Sam Williamson, right, stars as Eugene in UM’s production of Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs. - PHOTO BY ANNE MEDLEY
  • Photo by Anne Medley
  • Sam Williamson, right, stars as Eugene in UM’s production of Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs.

But now, as an adult, I wonder. It was 1987 back then. They could have been discussing any number of things. Ronald Regan had just addressed the country about the Iran-Contra scandal. Televangelist Jim Bakker had admitted to having an affair with church secretary Jessica Hahn. They could have been discussing us, the children, and whether we were meeting their expectations (obviously I wasn't). Local elections. The best recipe for cherry pie. It's hard to say. When you're in one room and not the other, when you're being a child and not an adult, or visa versa, it's hard to see the big picture of how everyone in a family experiences a particular moment in time.

That's why Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs is such a compelling comedy. The slice-of-life play based on Simon's youth tells the story of one week in the life of a New York family circa 1937. As the family moves from room to room, conversing at the dinner table, conferencing in bedrooms, whispering out on the front stoop, the audience gets to experience adult conversations—economy, war, marriage—juxtaposed with teenage conversations involving sexual awakenings and misty-eyed dreams of the future.

Eugene, based on Simon (and played by Sam Williamson), imagines himself playing professional baseball. At dinner, he drops his napkin to look up his cousin Nora's dress. He grumbles as he's forced to constantly run to the store to pick up last-minute groceries for his mother. He adores his older brother Stanley (Aaron Barker), whom he badgers into telling him about sex and the anatomy of women. Meanwhile, it's the prologue to World War II and Eugene's father (Bobby Gutierrez) listens to the radio and discusses the plight of Jewish cousins overseas. Stanley is having problems at work. Eugene's Aunt Blanche seems destined for eternal depression now that her husband is dead. Kate, the mother, has the burden of keeping the home together physically and emotionally despite instances of heartache her children, husband and sister give her.

UM's School of Theatre & Dance provides an elaborate set design for the production. The two-story, six-room set with brightly colored walls, warm lighting, detailed furniture and photographs all lends to the sense that this is a lived-in home with a real history. As impressive as the set is, it seems a bit puzzling that a struggling family appears so well to do for the times. But if distraction from that bit of inaccuracy was the goal, it almost works. I haven't seen a UM set this amazing in a long time.

Director Jere Hodgin manages to get even-keeled performances from the cast. Williamson toes the line as Eugene, sometimes acting truly boyish and other times looking like an adult playing a kid. His first few monologues seemed too hammed up, but he eventually contrasts serious teenage reflections with seriously hormone-charged obsessions. He's strikingly genuine.

Barker comes across as a dead ringer for Ben Affleck—in both looks and acting style—as Stanley. He plays the character with natural charm, unveiling Stanley's fierce convictions and unsteady confidence with precise care. Gutierrez, likewise, never overdoes the father character. I have no idea what Gutierrez is like in real life, but I couldn't see him as anything but a loving, stern father making tough decisions.

Meanwhile, Arcadea Jenkins and Alicia Bullock-Muth steal the show as Nora and the mother, respectively. Nora's an easy character to like—conspiratorial, tragic in her own youthful mind, energetic—but Jenkins' strong comedic timing and natural reactions to other characters make her jump to life. You end up listening to her every word.

Bullock-Muth captures a passive-aggressive mother who's doting, worried and often crazed ("Stop that yelling—I have a cake in the oven!") without falling into a stereotype. She plays the mother with outrageous comical effect, but with enough earnestness that when she does have her inevitable breakdown it can only be sympathetic.

The UM cast transitions gracefully between the hijinks (like Eugene's masturbation scenes) and the more nuanced everyday tragedies of family life. By the end you could see how a week in a family's life seems like a lifetime. True, in the grand scheme of things what actually happens over the course of the play is sort of miniscule, but it reminds you that when you're right there, experiencing a moment of embarrassment or fury or joy, that's the only thing that matters.

Brighton Beach Memoirs continues at the Montana Theatre in the PARTV Center Thursday, Oct. 15–Saturday, Oct. 17 at 7:30 PM nightly. $18/$14 seniors and students/$8 children 12 and under.

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