By Pat Launer
Humor elicits timeless guffaws,
Whether pre-Simon or post-menopause.
This week, comedy extended its reach
From Encinitas to Brighton Beach.
One of the famous BB-trilogy, “Brighton Beach Memoirs” is more frankly autobiographical than many of Neil Simon’s plays. (The other two, btw, are “Biloxi Blues” and “Broadway Bound”). This is the first of the trio, set in a crowded wood frame house in the titular poorish-but-respectable ethnic Brooklyn neighborhood of the writer’s childhood. Simon stand-in Eugene Jerome is a budding writer who’s 15 and discovering his sexuality, thanks to the reluctant enlightenment of his adored big brother, Stanley.
Life is tough for the Jeromes, and gets tougher, as the hilarity of the first act gives way to the melodrama of the second. The Nazis lurk overseas, threatening the Polish relatives, while uncaring bosses, no-show dates, failing health, sibling rivalry, Broadway auditions, work-vs.-college and a kvetching Jewish mother dog the extended family living in these physically and emotionally cramped quarters. Simon’s writing is crisp and funny at first, later maudlin and finally sugar-coated, but it’s still a very well-crafted play.
Up at the Avo Playhouse, Moonlight Stage Productions’ indoor venue, the comedy is getting an effective if uneven airing. For the most part, these aren’t any recognizably Jewish Brooklynites that I’ve ever known (and I was just next door in Queens). But, for a pseudo-Jewish WASPy assemblage (they really weren’t that assimilated in 1937!), they’re generally quite endearing.
At the center of the action is Andrew Levy as the author’s alter-ego, Eugene. This high school junior has had prior experience with Neil Simon plays — and with Jewish mothers. His comic delivery is excellent, though he’d do better with a bit more subtlety and less one-note (loud) emoting. But his timing is great and he’s charming and engaging as the baseball-loving nerd who gets blamed for everything as he sees all and tells all, conspiratorially, to the audience. Also excellent is Jeff Parker, a UCLA grad who’s logged in seven shows with Moonlight. He’s got an easy, natural style and he’s totally believable as the older brother who loves but is sometimes bothered by his younger sib, especially when he’s got crises of his own, relating to standing up to his principles and fessing up to his foolishness. A lovely, nuanced performance. As the beleaguered Jack, everyone’s Father Confessor, Paul Bourque creates the kind of Dad any kid would die for: fair, reasonable, warm, direct and sympathetic. The rest of the cast is fine, edging in and out of credibility but maintaining the soft nostalgic edge that makes the play compelling.
Marty Burnett’s set is beautifully detailed (set decoration by Mike Buckley), filled with wood trim and tchatchkes, though with its two levels and multiple rooms, it has a sense of more spaciousness than the text would suggest. But it’s well lit (Mitchell Simkovsky) and the characters are aptly costumed (Roslyn Lehman). Director George Flint keeps the words and actions rolling along, which makes for a most pleasant evening of comic theater. (through 2/22; 760-724-2110).
THE MENO-PAUSE THAT REFRESHES
Not far from the Jerome family, hunkered down on Long Island — 40 years later — Moira Keefe was reaching adolescence and flouting every rule and expectation her family or society set. She drank and did drugs, she falsified parental notes, she ran with boys, she got ‘felt up,’ and she ‘went all the way,’ skipping frenetically toward adulthood.
In her humorous monologue, “Life Before Sex: A Comedy about Growing up in the 70s,” she invites us into her madcap, nonstop adolescence, reciting excerpts from her high school diary in her most pronounced Noo Yawk accent. As she straddles a gymnastic bar (under Cynthia Stokes’ direction, she spends too much time balancing and/or jumping on and off the thing), she relates all the wild and wacky acts she engaged in as a teen. The memories are still sharp in her focus, despite the fact that she’s now 45 — and we see just why in the second half of her one-woman show.
The audience was about 3/4 female, and they were laughing their heads off, no doubt attracted by the title of the second piece, “Life with a Teenager: I’m Having a Hot Flashback.” Suddenly, for Keefe, it’s not quite as cool to be wild when it’s your daughter you’re talking about. Another subtitle for the show is ‘How to say no to your teenager in the ’90s when YOU said yes in the ’70s.”
Using a series of graduated exercise balls (and at one point, a pogo stick), Keefe bounces around, amusing us with tales of her daughter’s ‘straightness’ compared to her own mad nubile craziness; ultimately, she points out, her daughter is rebelling against her life, just as she rebelled against her parents’.
Keefe hasn’t changed all that much in the past 30 years. She still can turn a cartwheel and balance on the beam, and she’s still taking drugs, but now they’re of the anti-anxiety or anti-menopausal variety. Her tales of her “midlife outages” — menopausal memory lapses and other woes — are hilarious (“My body has reached cake-baking temperature”), as is the early onstage appearance of her actual daughter, to provide disclaimers about the veracity of her mother’s stories (“I don’t tell my mother everything… My mother exaggerates… Many of these so-called facts are fictitious”) before she gives us permission to enjoy the show. Keefe never names her daughter or husband; he’s The Spouse; the daughter’s beau, first seen in a photo, is henceforth called “5X7.”
Most of this turf has been trod before, but Keefe’s manic presentation makes her a lovable nutcase; she’s hyper (Adult ADHD, she’s been told, which doesn’t quite explain everything) and overwound, hyperverbal, wacky and pretty much irresistible.[Note: Due to overwhelming demand, the show’s been extended for two more performances — Feb. 20 and March 6 — at the Carlsbad Village Theatre; 760-943-9238]
THIS WEEK’S ‘DON’T MISS’ LIST ; for some true hilarity, you really MUST SEE every one of these:
“Kimberly Akimbo” — spectacular, uproarious, poignant, incredibly well acted and directed; at 6th @ Penn Theatre, through Feb. 22 (extra matinee added 2/22).
“Women Who Steal” — deliciously wicked, wonderfully acted, directed and designed. At the San Diego Rep through Feb. 22
“Fully Committed” — a genuine tour de force by David McBean; he’s a knockout: 40 characters — and a whole lot more! At Cygnet Theatre, EXTENDED through March 7
Do something sweet for your Sweetie: Give Performing Arts League Arts-Tix for V-Day!
©2004 Patté Productions Inc.