Neil Simon has arrived at the Cincinnati Playhouse. It’s surprising that one of the most frequently produced and honored playwrights of the 20th century hasn’t previously had one of his works staged at our award-winning regional theater, but it’s almost worth the wait given the current staging of Simon’s 1983 Tony Award winner, Brighton Beach Memoirs. While laced with the writer’s tried-and-true situational humor, this honest and heartfelt memory play is rooted in Simon’s own adolescence, growing up in a rented house with his extended family in Depression Era Brooklyn, N.Y., circa 1937.
The story is told from the perspective of Eugene, age 15, who dreams of playing for the Yankees and seeing a girl naked. Ryan DeLuca totally captures Eugene’s innocence (when his older brother mentions “puberty,” Eugene thinks it’s something dirty) but also has a wry sense of humor as an aspiring writer who chronicles the ups and downs of life in the Jerome household.
Everyone struggles to make ends meet, and world war is right around the corner. Jerome’s weary, over-worked father (Tony Campisi) frets about his family and relatives in Poland. Jerome’s outspoken, domineering mother Kate (another standout, Lori Wilner) seems mistrustful of everyone, although it’s more fear than anger. Her widowed sister, insecure Blanche (Christianne Tisdale) tries to raise two daughters while living in someone else’s home. Jerome’s older brother Stanley (Michael Curran-Dorsiano) is torn between adolescent urges and adult expectations.
When Jerome is not fantasizing about baseball and girls, he hovers over his family (quite literally, from second floor of Michael Ganio’s two-story set, detailed with an authentic telephone pole and cramped neighboring houses), taking notes on their behavior. Simon’s script covers a week during which everyone’s patience and mettle are tested. There are funny scenes around a dinner table, secretive conversations between brothers about whispered subjects like “whacking off,” a long-simmering argument between adult sisters, and numerous parental concerns about child rearing. Deftly staged by veteran director Steven Woolf of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis (the show is a co-production), this all adds up to an evening of genuine, endearing and charming theater.
BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS, presented by the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, continues through Nov. 10.