A lot has changed in the 26 years since the premiere of Brighton Beach Memoirs, the first in Neil Simon’s semi-autobiographical trilogy about a young Jewish-American boy named Eugene coming of age in 1930s New York City. Fewer of us have grandparents (or great-grandparents) who were alive during the late ’30s, when Brighton Beach Memoirs is set, and so what had been primarily a nostalgia show now plays more like history.
Simon is not one to dwell on the heavy side of history, though there are hints of more serious themes at play: the Willy Loman-ish father (Dennis Boutsikaris) who’s just lost his second job, the hard-working brother (Santino Fontana) who uncharacteristically slips up and squanders his much-needed paycheck in a poker game, the imminent arrival of both World War II and Jewish cousins fleeing the growing Nazi regime. Instead, the veteran comedy writer grounds us in the quotidian drama and humor of family life, from the appealing point-of-view of a precocious and writerly 15-year-old named Eugene experiencing the first throes of puberty. (Another sign that times have changed: It’s hard to imagine any contemporary 15-year-old boy who hasn’t seen a picture of a naked woman and her ”golden palace of the Himilayas.”)
Eugene is played by Noah Robbins, a 19-year-old just out of high school in Maryland who commands the spotlight from the show’s opening line and holds it through the final curtain. Eugene may never play for the Yankees, as is his fervent hope, but this kid’s a natural. Interestingly, Robbins’ stunning, confident, funny performance evokes a young Woody Allen even more than Matthew Broderick — who created the role at age 21, won a Tony Award, and then went onto Ferris Bueller and a Hollywood career. (Beginning next month, Brighton Beach Memoirs will play in repertory with the third play in the Eugene trilogy, the ’40s-set Broadway Bound, with Josh Grisetti as Eugene but much of the rest of the cast reprising their roles.)
Robbins’ Eugene is a distinctly post-Seinfeld nebbish, and David Cromer’s thoughtful direction underscores the universality of the family’s experience instead of stooping to borscht belt shtick. As Eugene’s hard-working, all-knowing mother, Laurie Metcalf offers a master class in stage characterization. Her every line reading and gesture achieves a double ring: ringing fundamentally true while wringing the text for every possible laugh.
Laughs are, after all, Simon’s stock and trade. There are plenty of them in this fine revival, easily the best show of a young Broadway season. A lot of things may have changed in the last quarter century, but this show’s punchlines still work. A-
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