‘Brighton Beach Memoirs’ at Raven: A young man’s fancy swings from baseball to – sex!
By Lawrence B. Johnson
Eugene Morris Jerome, age 15, has two things on his mind: baseball and girls. He knows baseball. This summer – it’s 1937 in Brooklyn – Eugene is seriously committed to learning everything about his latest subject of interest. This is the famously irresistible setup of Neil Simon’s quasi-autobiographical comedy “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” a heart-warming delight in its current staging at Raven Theatre.
A backstage rule has it that if you want to sell a teenage character, put a teenager in the role. That’s just what Raven has done with Eugene. In Charlie Bazzell, a student at Whitney M. Young High School, director Cody Estle has a lead actor with that mix of credible youth and stage bravado needed to hang this show on.
“Brighton Beach” isn’t merely a coming of age story. It’s a layered, poignant drama about relationships within an extended family brought under one roof by trying circumstances in the throes of the Depression. As both narrator and central character, it is the aspiring writer Eugene who leads our gaze into vulnerable hearts. We see it all through his eyes – that is, in the remembered perspective of a teenage boy whose sole burning wish is to glimpse his beautiful cousin Nora in the fullness of her creamy flesh.
Luckily for Eugene, he has an older brother – Stanley, played with strained patience by Sam Hubbard – to fill in the details of a yearning imagination. If Bazzell’s frothy Eugene and Hubbard’s sober Stanley are as temperamentally different as their ages and preoccupations could make them, their scenes together sparkle.
Stanley, three years older, has been around. And while he can’t exactly offer Eugene an instruction manual, he can at least draw pictures, with words as well as pen. Hubbard scores the show’s peak moment with Stanley’s meticulous account of bolting into the bathroom to behold the wet, curvaceous form of Nora emerging from the shower.
Yet with no less aplomb, Hubbard also conveys the older brother’s personal issues, daunting matters born of the perils that come with setting first foot out in the hard, exploitative world. “Brighton Beach Memoirs” is a profoundly human comedy, and director Estle has found a plausible mean betwixt the bruising stresses on Eugene’s family and Eugene’s over-arching sense of what’s really important: finding out about sex. Much of what’s very clever is also bittersweet.
It’s a smart, funny, familial cast that fills out the Jerome household. As Eugene’s long-suffering but stern mother Kate, JoAnn Montemurro elicits our sympathy even as her edged reproofs of Eugene draw laughter. Here’s a believable mother: beleaguered, pragmatic, quietly frazzled and yet loving withal.
She is well mated in Ron Quale’s Jack, who dispenses wisdom with empathic indulgence and bears his load with grace, even as his back bends. These are parlous times, when dollars are scraped and stretched to keep the family going. Like Sisyphus, Jack just keeps pushing the rock to provide shelter and food for Kate’s prematurely widowed sister Blanche (Liz Fletcher) and her two teenage daughters, the bookish, fragile Laurie (Elizabeth Stenholt) and the aforementioned object of Eugene’s simmering lust, Nora (Sophia Menendian).
Almost like another character, Amanda Rozmiarek’s homey two-level set adds a voice of well-conditioned authenticity to the story-telling. Two families are living in a space meant to accommodate one comfortably, and the congestion speaks in cramped upstairs bedrooms. But so does the enforced closeness between Eugene and, yes, Nora. It’s a scenario that dreams are made of — if you’re a lad of 15, near the end of your adolescent fantasy as a major league fast-baller, and more than ready to try a new game.
Photo captions and credits: Home page and top: Sophia Menendian, left, plays Eugene’s beguiling cousin Nora, with Elizabeth Stenholt as her bookish sister Laurie. Descending: Eugene (Charlie Bazzell) imagines himself a big-league pitcher and dreams of becoming a writer — and gazing upon pretty cousin Nora’s unencumbered charms. Older brother Stanley (Sam Hubbard) holds the key to the treasure of feminine mystique. Eugene’s father Jack (Ron Quale) and mother Kate (JoAnn Montemurro) are trying to provide for two families under their roof. (Photos by Dean LaPrairie)