A Funny Walk Down Memory Lane ~ Brighton Beach Memoirs at Act II

DJ Gleason (standing) plays Eugene, the narrator, in Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” on stage at Act II Playhouse in Ambler until June 25. Photo by Bill D’Agostino.

By Ellen Wilson Dilks

Ambler’s Act II has gone back to a classic American comedy to close out their 2016—17 season: Neil Simon’s 1983 semi-autobiographical play, BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS. Directed by William Roudabush, the production runs at the company’s Butler Avenue venue through June 25, 2017.

Heavily grounded in the playwright’s own experiences growing up, BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS is the first of Simon’s “Eugene Trilogy.” The other two pieces are Biloxi Blues (which deals with his time in the service during WWII) and Broadway Bound (about his early days as a comedy writer with his older brother Danny). The first and third plays are both set in the Jerome family’s Brooklyn brownstone. BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS ran for over 1,200 performances on Broadway and was subsequently made into a film that was a hit as well. The central character in all three pieces is Eugene Morris Jerome, Simon’s alter ego.

“I love tense moments! Especially when I’m not the one they’re all tense about.”

The year is 1937, the Great Depression still has a stranglehold on the country and WWII is looming on the horizon as Simon takes us to the Jerome household. Eugene is our guide; he is almost fifteen years old and in the throes of puberty. The family consists of mother Kate (“My family were worriers. Worriers generally marry fainters.”), father Jack (“What God gives us to deal with, we deal with.”) and older brother Stanley (“If you ever write a story about me, call me Hank. I always liked the name Hank.”). Joining the Jerome’s are Kate’s widowed sister, Blanche, and her two teen-aged daughters Nora and Laurie Morton. Laurie is bright and bookish; she has a heart issue, so she is pampered—much to Eugene’s chagrin. Nora (who wants to be an actress) is 16 and the object of Eugene’s adolescent sexual awakening.

Director Roudabush’s BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS is fast-paced and tons of fun. He’s assembled a terrific company of actors who give Simon’s characters real dimension and make the laughs come from a place of realness. Mary Elizabeth Scallen gives a gem of a performance as Kate—she has “Mom guilt” down to a tee. Peter Bisgaier matches her as dad Jack, showing us a man who is exhausted but will do anything to provide for his family. Jonathan Silver brings some nice touches to Stanley, handling both the comedy and the more angst-ridden moments with aplomb. Julianna Zinkel gives a lovely turn as the overwhelmed Blanche who wasn’t prepared to go through life without her husband. Eileen Cella is adorably snotty as Laurie, and Katie Stahl is delightful as the fiercely independent Nora.

However, the real find is DJ Gleason as Eugene. BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS lives and dies by whether you have the right actor in this pivotal role. Eugene spends quite a bit of time directly addressing the audience, so he needs to charm their pants off, Gleason delivers.

The action unfolds on Dirk Durossette’s well laid out set that incorporates the Jerome’s living/dining area, a front yard and the bedroom Eugene shares with Stanley on Act II’s intimate stage. There are terrific 30s household pieces and other details, but the stage doesn’t feel cramped. John Stovicek has created a wonderful soundscape that fully evokes the era—including a radio commercial touting how doctors recommend Lucky Strike cigarettes. Amanda Coffin is to be applauded for gathering all the great props and kudos to Jennifer Povich for the great 30s costumes.

Simon’s actual childhood wasn’t as rosy as what he depicts at the Jerome’s; He’s stated that his parents argued constantly, and he and his brother had to live with relatives for a period during their grade-school years. But, he took his pain and “turned it into art” (as Carrie Fisher said), paying homage to all those families who struggled through those difficult depression years. BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS is good old-fashioned funny—even with the jokes about puberty. I’d recommend the production for anyone 15 and above. With a running time of two hours and thirty minutes (including the intermission), it’s a solid evening of entertainment.

If You Go: The production runs now through June 25th, with performances Tuesdays through Saturday evenings, as well as Sunday afternoons. Act II Playhouse is located at 56 E. Butler Avenue in Ambler, PA 19002. For additional information—or to order tickets—patrons can visit www.act2.org  or call 215-654-0200