Times theater reviewer C.B. Goldsmith checked out the EPCC Theater Ensemble production of "Brighton Beach Memoirs," which opened Thursday and repeats next weekend. Here's his review.
By C.B. Goldsmith
There was no more popular or successful playwright on Broadway in the early 1980s than Neil Simon. His plays were funnier and ran longer than anyone else’s. He could have easily rested upon his laurels and retired as the king of comedy.
Instead, the middle-aged Simon created Eugene Jerome, and in doing so found his truest voice. In “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” Simon returned to the roots of his childhood through the character and began a trilogy of plays that brought a depth and gravity that redefined his body of work.
The EPCC Theater Ensemble continues its eighth season with Simon’s funny, true and powerful work, giving it a depth and gravitas all their own.
"Memoirs" tells the story of two nights in the lives of two Jewish families forced by death to live together packed into a small house near Coney Island. The youngest resident is Eugene, the fledgling writer and wit who narrates the play. As Eugene negotiates both puberty and poverty, he shares a universal story of families trapped under one small roof.
Because of the early death of Eugene’s uncle, his aunt and two female cousins now share the tiny house. Though the aunt brings in sewing to try and help. Even with Eugene’s noble father working two jobs and his undependable brother working another, the financial devil is often at their door.
As Europe teeters under Adolph Hitler’s wrath, this Jewish family comes apart with the beautifully written emotion and humor that redefines the artistry of Neil Simon, a guy better known before then for lighter but insightful comedies such as "The Sunshine Boys," "The Odd Couple" and "Barefoot in the Park."
I lucked into tickets for the Broadway production in the early '8os that starred a young Matthew Broderick in the role that launched his career. Unfortunately, I was young, too, and remembered the play merely for its humor and sex. Fortunately, EPCC’s presentation is so powerful that I was able to see the dramatic reach within Simon’s comedy.
Brian Craig Ceely portrays Eugene with a boundless energy and spirit that owns the audience from word one. Not only is Ceely charming and funny, but his vivacity tempers the real-world hardship his family endures.
Eugene’s foil, both comically and emotionally, is the home’s ruler, his mother Kate, played by one of El Paso’s most versatile and gifted actors, Vanessa Keyser. Her Kate boils over in a stew of a Jewish mother’s guilt, worry and resentment. In the hands of a lesser artist, this part could have been mere caricature, but Keyser is too gifted for this to occur.
Director Hector Serrano does remarkable work in several important areas. He allows his two stars the room to own their characters, but reins them in just enough to allow the home’s required claustrophobia to develop. He also tempers the ethnicity sufficiently, which allows a classically Jewish family to represent a universality all can identify with.
He joins with dialect coach Cornelia Patterson to create the finest ensemble of accents in an El Paso production I’ve yet to hear. With seven actors speaking ethnic Brooklynese, this production could have easily become cartoonish but never did. Serrano also designed a beautiful set, managed tricky lighting and the perfect sound design.
As Kate battles to control Eugene and his hormones, her sister Blanche battles to control her wild child, Nora, as well a young widow’s loneliness. Portrayed by Valerie Cadena, Blanche emerges slowly as a complex woman, then, makes every scene simmer with her inherent ache in Act Two.
She is matched by Melissa Flowers, who plays her daughter with the shared longing of an entire household needing more. Flowers saves her power and range for the climactic second act, where she and Cadena collide as many mothers and daughters must.
Yoli Cortez was terrific as Nora’s younger and frail sister, Laurie, and easily achieved the uneasy task of an older actor honestly portraying a “tween.” Jonathan Cantrell also does fine work as Eugene’s older brother, Stanley. The scenes between the two brothers in their bedroom, as the older explains puberty to the sex-crazed younger, could have been unbearably awkward in lesser hands, but was authentic and tender.
Rick Fitzgerald, as the families’ financial anchor, Jack Jerome, brings a powerful yet endearing weariness to the put-upon patriarch. His warmth is the subtle center of Simon’s work and combines with his wife’s overbearing earthiness to make this a real family, rendered truly.
EPCC’s Theater Ensemble continues its evolution with Simon's powerfully funny and poignant play in a production that honors the author and audience.
"Brighton Beach Memoirs" continues at 8 p.m. Nov. 1-3 at the EPCC Transmountain Forum Theatre, 9750 Gateway North. Tickets are $15, $10 for military and non-EPCC students, $7 for EPCC students, faculty and staff. 831-5056, epcc.edu/theater.