Brighton Beach Memoirs a Memorable Evening


Anita Hollander and Kate Konigisor

Is it possible to screw up a Neil Simon play? I suppose it is. Maybe in some church basement in Tierra del Fuego right now there's an amateur theatrical group really making a hash of Lost in Yonkers. But they'd have to be really trying to. Neil Simon's wit and his wisdom about the human condition seem indestructible to me.

But what happens when a truly talented crew get their hands on a Neil Simon script? You get one of the best evenings you can spend in a theater. And that's exactly what you'll get if you see the Surflight's current production of Brighton Beach Memoirs.

Brighton Beach Memoirs, as you probably know, is the first in Simon's trilogy of autobiographical "B" plays, the other two being Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound. It's set in the working class Brooklyn apartment of the Jerome family and it's narrated by Simon's alter ego, aspiring writer Eugene Morris Jerome (Marc Tumminelli).

It's a crowded home. Along with Jerome's older brother Stanley (Andrew Foote) and their parents Kate and Jack (Kate Konigisor and Vince Urbani) there's Kate's widowed sister Blanche (Anita Hollander) and her two daughters, Laurie (Jenna Stephanie Miller) the younger, bookish one, and Nora (Erin Esposito) the older, voluptuous one, whom Eugene can't help lusting after, even if she is his first cousin.

It's a first rate cast, a mix of Surflight regulars and a couple of players I hadn't seen here before. The newcomers are Konigisor and young Miller. If Kongisor is not a Jewish mother herself she should be. She has the mannerisms, the demeanor and the dialog down pat. Her onstage daughter Jenna Miller is the perfect little sister, smart, pretty behind her glasses and spoiled. If you don't have a little sister like her, you've seen her type in a million movies.

Anita Hollander, Tevye's wife Golde in Fiddler on the Roof, plays a very different kind of Jewish mother in this play. Blanche is anxious, indecisive and a little overwhelmed by the vagaries of life. I think Hollander's rendition is exactly what Simon was shooting for.

Vince Urbani does a fine job with Jack but the character doesn't get the choice lines the other roles get. There is one moment in which he got to shine. It's when he's trying to convince his sister-in-law Blanche to continue living with the family after she and Kate have had a row. Simon's dialog and Urbani's delivery were true-to-life. It reminded me of the affection I feel for my own widowed sister-in-law. That's the kind of emotional identification you pay your money for, folks.

Foote and Esposito earned my affection and respect last season. Foote is not only a good actor, he's written the season-opening gala review two years running and he's directed some of the summer season children's shows. His performance too, reminded me of my own family. At one point Stanley laments how it's the older one who has to learn things the hard way--whose mistakes and missteps pave the way for his younger brother. As the youngest of four boys, I can tell you his words rang true to me.

From Mame to George M! to last year's Simon play, Rumors, Erin Esposito has shown both range and depth. Her peformance as Nora only confirmed what I already believed. If any of the many talented people at Surflight are indeed broadway bound, Esposito must surely be one of them.

I've saved the best news for last. When Surflight artistic director Steve Steiner held auditions for the 2003 season in New York last spring, he didn't find anyone he liked well enough to cast as Eugene. So earlier this month he made a special trip to New York to hold another audition for that one part. It was worth the wait. Marc Tumminelli is a perfect Eugene Jerome. I hope we see him again.

I could say more but it's getting late and I'm tired. Last year's Rumors was great. This year Brighton Beach is great too. If they do a Simon play again next year maybe I'll just save myself the effort and write the review for it now: "Yeah, they did it again. Go see it."

Evening performances run through September 27, 2003 at 8:00 p.m. with matinees on September 25, and 28 at 2 p.m.