'The Neil Simon Plays: Brighton Beach

Hats off to the farsighted producers for taking a risk on their choice of director.

Hats off to the farsighted producers of “The Neil Simon Plays” for taking a risk on their choice of director. While David Cromer’s most recent New York hits, “Adding Machine” and “Our Town,” mined piercing depths in timeworn texts, they did so in an austere presentational style that seemed a million miles from the warm-hearted humor of “Brighton Beach Memoirs.” The first installment of a Simon double that continues with “Broadway Bound,” opening Dec. 10, the revival strikes an exquisite balance between comedy and pathos, its impeccable ensemble landing every laugh while exploring every emotional nuance to build a tremendously moving portrait of family life.

Premiered in 1983, Simon’s autobiographical play introduced 15-year-old alter ego Eugene Morris Jerome, an aspiring writer whose progression into adulthood was chronicled through the trilogy’s subsequent parts, “Biloxi Blues” (1985) and “Broadway Bound” (1986).

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.

A typical teenage boy, obsessed with baseball and the unfolding mysteries of sex, Eugene (Noah Robbins) serves as guide to the story, recording choice nuggets in his diary, “The Unbelievable, Fantastic and Completely Private Thoughts of I, Eugene Morris Jerome.” While the device provides a lighthearted frame, it also highlights Simon’s skill at conveying the way gifted comic writers can draw on the most ordinary situations for inspiration.

Set in the working-class Brooklyn neighborhood of the title in the late 1930s, in the encroaching shadow of WWII, the play’s treatment of a family struggling to stay together and make ends meet resonates perhaps more now than it did in the 1980s.

The Jerome clan is straining at the seams, including not only Eugene’s older brother Stanley (Santino Fontana) and their parents, Jack (Dennis Boutsikaris) and Kate (Laurie Metcalf), but Kate’s widowed sister Blanche (Jessica Hecht) and her daughters, Nora (Alexandra Socha) and Laurie (Gracie Bea Lawrence).

A no-less-important character is John Lee Beatty’s massive set, a cutaway of the Jeromes’ worn but cozy (and scrupulously clean, Kate proudly points out) two-floor house; lighting designer Brian MacDevitt gracefully ushers our attention around its four rooms and porch to follow the action.

Act one spins around simmering conflicts that bubble up during a tense dinner. Stanley has taken a principled stand in defense of a co-worker and now risks losing his job. Starry-eyed Nora wants to quit school to pursue a dubious-sounding offer of a spot in a Broadway chorus. Troubles multiply in act two when Stanley loses his salary in a poker game, workhorse Jack has a mild heart attack, and Blanche pins her long-neglected romantic hopes on an Irish neighbor with his own problems.

But it’s not so much what happens to this fractious Jewish family as the big-picture mosaic Simon so deftly assembles. There’s a deeply pleasurable rhythm to the play’s swaying moods, from the comedy of Eugene’s reveries about naked girls or his martyrdom about being resident errand-boy to the genuine pathos of good people enduring economic hardship and worry. The dramatic integrity Cromer brings to the material means the darker, more emotional second act flows organically from the meticulous character-building of the first.

There’s no romanticized gloss on the view of family life; the bonds are intense and unbreakable, yet they come through with all the wrinkles of real life.

Metcalf’s weary, bone-dry Kate is the production’s volatile center, while Boutsikaris’ warmly empathetic Jack is its soul. The well-worn grooves of their marriage are equaled in the details of Kate’s loving/nagging relationship with Blanche. The former has always been the selfless — if not uncomplaining — carer, while the latter has drifted increasingly into self-pitying frailty. Even when long-buried resentments are aired and resolutions to change are made, the feeling remains that these roles are irrevocably etched in the sisters’ respective DNA.

Bonds between the younger siblings are no less vivid. Leaning on her heart flutter as grounds for laziness, bookish Laurie is a prim observer who can’t hide her vicarious pleasure in big sister Nora’s precocious blossoming. Among the funniest and most tender scenes are the intimate moments between Stanley and Eugene, laced with impatience, envy, admiration and camaraderie.

Every member of the cast creates a multidimensional character. Metcalf’s ability to match brittleness with heart is peerless, tossing off guilt grenades and unshowy gestures of affection with equal conviction. Boutsikaris’ Jack is a rock of earthbound wisdom and parental understanding. Hecht is lovely; her cracked voice and jittery mannerisms suggest a woman prematurely aged but not ready to wilt. And Fontana brings such strength of character to Stanley that his threatened departure sparks sobs in the audience.

Robbins is slightly younger and weedier than Matthew Broderick when he originated the role, and perhaps deeper into cartoonish nerd territory. But while his Eugene seems almost a caricature at first, the performance steadily accrues texture in both functions, as a droll narrator and as part of a rich dramatic fabric.

The Neil Simon Plays: Brighton Beach Memoirs

Nederlander Theater; 1,201 seats; $100 top

Production

An Ira Pittelman, Max Cooper, Jeffrey A. Sine, Scott Delman, Ruth Hendel, Roy Furman, Ben Sprecher/Wendy Federman, Scott Landis, Emanuel Azenberg presentation of a play in two acts by Neil Simon. Directed by David Cromer.

Creative

Set, John Lee Beatty; costumes, Jane Greenwood; lighting, Brian MacDevitt; sound, Fitz Patton, Josh Schmidt; hair and wigs, Tom Watson; technical supervision, Hudson Theatrical Associates; associate producer, Sheila Steinberg; production supervisor, Barclay Stiff; production stage manager, Brandon Kahn. Opened Oct. 25, 2009. Reviewed Oct. 22. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.

Cast

Eugene Morris Jerome - Noah Robbins Blanche Morton - Jessica Hecht Kate Jerome - Laurie Metcalf Laurie Morton - Gracie Bea Lawrence Nora Morton - Alexandra Socha Stanley Jerome - Santino Fontana Jack Jerome - Dennis Boutsikaris

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