Friday, November 6, 2009

Brighton Gone Dark

I have mixed feelings about the suprise commercial flop of "The Neil Simon Plays" -- despite the critical success of Brighton Beach Memoirs. On the one hand, it means the words "Neil Simon" -- even coupled with the word "revival" -- are not enough to sell tickets these days. I think that's a good thing, generally, for Broadway. On the other hand: this was an exceptionally good revival, and it's not so great for Broadway when excellent work goes unrewarded.

The major reviews I read got things pretty much right. Michael Feingold was the most insightful, as usual, and came closest to expressing my overall reaction -- this was so well directed that it made Simon's script feel less like an expert collection of one-liners and more like, good heavens, a play. I kept comparing it mentally to The Last Night of Ballyhoo, another play I saw on Broadway about the American Jewish experience on the verge of the Second World War. (The presence in both casts of Jessica Hecht also inspired the comparison.) The production here -- the acting, sets, costumes -- achieved a similar kind of nostalgic realism, comfortable but never treacly. I still have more respect for Alfred Uhry's achievement as a playwright -- he managed to get laughs and tug heartstrings without a single character who talks directly to the audience! -- but, as I said, in this outing Brighton Beach Memoirs really felt like a play.

The hero of all this, and rightly so, is director David Cromer. I'll be looking for the next thing he does. But a lot of credit has to go to the cast. Noah Robbins, who played Eugene, is a born star and will be back again for sure. Laurie Metcalf was a terrific choice for Mama Jerome; she brought a comedian's skill to the part but grounded everything in legitimate character work. And although Feingold faulted Jessica Hecht for "pushing her character to the edge of grotesquerie," I thought she was particularly good. Every actor in the cast landed their punch lines with skill, and without mugging, but Hecht drew laughs in places where there were no jokes, just by bringing Blanche to life.

Since it's too late to save the show now, let's talk about something I didn't see much discussed in the reviews: all that "sexual content." I'd forgotten how much innuendo Simon squeezes into his plays, and I'm not sure how I feel about it. At first, when Eugene starts describing the forms his adolescent lust takes, it's jarring. Then, once you get past that, it's sort of refreshing -- a good antidote to all the improbably chaste representations of the good old days. It seems to inject an honest edge into our cultural memories of the knickers-and-stickball era of American life: teenagers were sex-obsessed then too. But -- and I wonder, is this just me? -- after a while all the talk about breasts and legs and masturbation and "the golden palace of the Himalayas" just makes me uncomfortable. It's a little creepy, really, especially coming from a character who's so aggressively autobiographical. (Characters who want to be writers is right up there with characters who talk directly to the audience on my list of "writing crutches to be avoided when possible." But I have to admit, Simon really makes it work.)

I'm disappointed I won't get to see Broadway Bound, not because I can't wait to spend another night with the Jeromes, but because this group of artists worked so well together, and I was looking forward to seeing whether they could work their magic twice.


Amy Wilson said...

I have some inside commentary that may be of interest here: an early draft of "Ballyhoo" had a young male character, Uhry himself I suppose, speaking directly to the audience to introduce each scene. That was a good edit, I thought at the time.

Mollie said...

Ooh, thanks for the scoop. Definitely a good edit, especially given the Neil Simon comparison.