Eugene Strikes Back! "Broadway Bound" at Workshop Theatre Completes Acclaimed Neil Simon Trilogy

bwaybound "Being in love can be a real career killer.”

That's a classic quote from the beloved Eugene Morris Gerome, the protagonist of Broadway Bound, the final play in Neil Simon’s autobiographical trilogy, which opens this Friday, January 16 in The Market Space at 701 Whaley.   University of South Carolina professor David Britt, who directed both previous installments for Workshop Theatre, returns to finish out the series.

USC senior Ryan Stevens steps into the lead role to complete the Eugene trifecta.  “First and foremost, it’s a real honor to get to step in and be the culminating Eugene," says Stevens.  "Jared Kemmerling, who played him in Brighton Beach Memoirs, really created a very youthful, energetic portrait of Eugene as a kid.  Jay Fernandes, whom I’ve gotten the pleasure of working with personally, carried him through into young adulthood in Biloxi Blues.  They both, in their respective shows, had to show Eugene growing up and adapting to different things - to the Depression, to the War, etc.,” Stevens says.  "For me, in Broadway Bound, he’s older now - he’s starting his proper adult life. He’s got a chance here, a chance for efficacy. In the previous two plays, Eugene was really more observant, of family drama, of drama in his unit. With his career here, with the chance to become a writer, he’s getting an opportunity to actually do something for himself, for everyone to see.”

As a member of USC’s improv troupe Toast and a playwright himself, Stevens is no stranger to comedy and to the trials that a writer such as Eugene may face.

“I’m about his age, and as a senior here at USC, I’m about to be in a pretty similar career situation.  I know how he feels, absolutely!  When you’re writing, you want to believe what you’re writing in, and sometimes that carries over into a sort of syndrome where you just decide ‘This first draft? It’s flawless. Final draft. Done.’   Eugene’s brother, Stanley, in a lot of the scenes they share, is poking holes in the logic of what Eugene writes. Every critique he has is valid, but for Eugene, it’s infuriating!  Any writer, in having their work reviewed, has that feeling of ‘Dammit, I know the logic is weak and this joke didn’t land and there’s a huge plot hole there, but I’ll be DAMNED if someone who isn’t me is going to tell me!’ I like to think that I, as Ryan, have gotten better at taking critique, but Eugene still bristles a little when he has to do the dreaded thing that haunts all writers’ dreams: edit,” Stevens elaborates.

 

William Cavitt as Stanley and Ryan Stevens as Eugene

 

Alongside all these comedic moments there is still a serious story to be told.

Simon is “very deft at handling all the clashing moods that happen inside this little house," Stevens explains. "David Britt has been great at reminding us that all of the humor comes from the same place as the drama, because it comes from us, the characters, the people and our relationships to one another. Neither humor nor drama really occur in a vacuum -- there has to be the human element to tether it, to make it feel real (and) relatable,”

While the story may be set in a decade different to our own, audiences today can still cherish the lessons learned through the eyes of a young writer similar to Stevens himself.

“Right now, these days, there’s all this talk about how this generation is the worst generation ever, that we’re lazy and entitled, and all this nonsense, which I really think is nonsense, because we didn’t do any of this! We didn’t create the world’s problems - the generation before us did, and we’re just the ones footing the bill. But by the same token, we’ll stand a much better chance of solving our problems and closing this hostile generation gap if we quit believing it ourselves. A lot of people my age have heard it so much that they’ve started believing it themselves,” Stevens says.  "Broadway Bound is very clear in the fact that the previous generation of adults is always just as backwards and screwed up as the current one. It was true in the 1940’s, it’s true today, and it’ll be true in the future. There are always generation gaps. Broadway Bound wants the younger generation to realize that their parents are fallible, yes, and fallible because they’re people too. The age range in the play is at the point where the youngest character is 23, and therefore, nobody is a child anymore. Everyone is sort of on an equal playing field. Which is how it should be, for young and old. There’s no talking down in this play, there’s no pretension or condescension to anyone. The kids and the parents are on the same plane. Does that level of emotional honesty have some blowback? Of course. But it’s still better than acting like the people of yesterday, today, and tomorrow are too divided to communicate.”

Broadway Bound's cast includes Samantha Elkins and Lou Warth Boeschen, returning from 2013's production of Brighton Beach Memoirs, again playing Eugene's mother Kate and her sister Blanche respectively.  William Cavitt,who appeared in Britt's 2014 production of Biloxi Blues in a different role, will portray older brother Stanley, while Chris Cook, last as seen as Lear opposite Cavitt's Edgar in this past fall's SC Shakespeare Company production of King Lear, plays father Jack. David Reed, who performed with Cook and Cavitt in the 2013 High Voltage production of Dracula, rounds out the cast as grandfather Ben. Reed in a way comes full circle with this performance, having played Jack in a 1990 incarnation of Broadway Bound at Town Theatre. The original Broadway production ran for over two years, and was nominated for four Tony Awards and four Drama Desk Awards, winning two of each, and was a 1987 Pulitzer finalist. The original cast included Jonathan Silverman, and Jason Alexander (who went on to star in The Single Guy and Seinfeld respectively) as Eugene and Stanley, with Linda Lavin (a Golden Globe winner for the long-running tv series Alice) as Kate.

Workshop Theatre's new production of Neil Simon's Broadway Bound will run January 16-25 at The Market Space at 701 Whaley. Tickets can be purchased through the Box Office at (803) 799-6551, or online at www.workshoptheatre.com .

~ Haley Sprankle

"Biloxi Blues" at Workshop Theatre - a review by August Krickel

biloxi1 Last spring, Workshop Theatre audiences were introduced to the young Eugene Jerome, a horny, wisecracking, young teenager with a sensitive, intellectual side in Brighton Beach Memoirs. The alter-ego for playwright Neil Simon in his acclaimed and semi-autobiographical "Eugene trilogy" (also referred to as the "BB trilogy"), Eugene has now matured. Into a horny, wisecracking older teenager with a sensitive intellectual side. It's 1943, and he's in boot camp in Mississippi, experiencing Biloxi Blues. Director David Britt returns with a strong and age-appropriate young cast to track this next step of Eugene's journey. The tone is intentionally uneven, alternating between classic sketch comedy, sweet romance, and intense, character-driven drama, and the language and themes are at times as R-rated as you'd expect from the setting, but it's an amazingly honest memoir from Simon.

As Eugene, Jason Fernandes strikes the perfect tone as a young man in the process of finding himself. He still has an incredible gift for wordplay and funny observations about life, which, as in the earlier play, he often delivers to the audience directly, narrating the play's action which stops long enough for him to break the fourth wall. Yet Eugene now knows he wants to be writer; he's read all the great authors whom he hopes to emulate, and in his journal, his observations on life and human nature are fairly deep and insightful. Matthew Broderick played the role on Broadway to great acclaim just before filming Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and Eugene is a wittier (if less mischievous) Ferris, if Ferris were a Jewish New Yorker. (In one of those "Awwww" moments, Broderick evidently brought cast mate Alan Ruck, who played Pvt. Carney on Broadway, along to Hollywood, where Ruck played Ferris's best friend Cameron.) Fernandes's bio indicates he is from Long Island and a freshman in college, so he already has the accent and age down pat.  Resembling a young Adam Sandler, he successfully navigates the tricky jumps in tone from wisdom to naiveté to working the crowd like a Borscht Belt comedian.

biloxi3Another standout in the cast is William Cavitt as Wykowski, ostensibly the gung-ho bully in Eugene's platoon. Unrecognizable from the dapper British gentleman he played in High Voltage's Dracula last fall, Cavitt also excels at revealing the humanity in what could have easily been a stereotypical stock character. Stephen Canada also has some good moments as sad sack Carney, and like Cavitt, does a great job with capturing the Northern accent. Canada and Fernandes have a surprisingly touching scene which shows how clearly, yet simultaneously subtly, Eugene is growing up.  Seemingly insulting Carney as untrustworthy due to his constant vacillation, Eugene explains that they are both about to be in combat situations where decisiveness can save their lives, which is a very mature observation for a kid just a few weeks into basic training.

As local hooker Rowena, Jennifer Moody Sanchez is appropriately sexy and vampy, biloxi2showing trace elements of compassion as she realizes that she will be Eugene's first. (As above, part of the honest nature of this play is that we find ourselves rooting for an innocent kid to lose his virginity to a hooker.) Her Southern accent drips with magnolia blossom honey, much like Park Overall's film portrayal, and almost seems too extreme, but we've all known ladies from that era who drawl with great pride, plus this is a memory play, and that's surely how all Southern accents sounded to both Simon and Eugene.

biloxi6Winsome Haley Sprankle shines as Daisy, the adorable sort of red-headed Catholic school girl that we'd all go fight Hitler for in a heartbeat. Her scenes with Eugene are a great example of Simon's excellence with dialogue:  Eugene, as the surrogate for the playwright, has the advantage of a middle-aged Tony-winner from the 1980's writing his snappy lines, while Daisy speaks like the heroine of a 1940's war movie.  The way they flirt at a USO dance by bonding over literature is just incredibly well-written, and well-acted by these young performers: he is familiar with Fitzgerald's Daisy Buchanan and Henry James's Daisy Miller, she counters that she also likes Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and O'Neill's Anna Christie, and of course he points out that he likes writers named Eugene. That's the basis for true love right there, or what passes for it when millions of young men were shipping off to war, with no guarantee of return. Fernandes, Cavitt, Canada, Sanchez and Sprankle are also uniformly strong with projection.

A pivotal subplot involves misfit Pvt. Epstein (Colby Gambrell) and the harsh discipline biloxi5of Drill Sgt. Toomey (Lee Williams.) Eugene acknowledges Epstein's criticism that he is too much of an observer, recording his life experiences with a writer's skill, but rarely taking the lead. Both characters suffer from the anti-Semitism of the era, but Eugene finds a way to blend in via his wit and social skills, which is a recurring theme, and source of guilt, for many Jewish authors. Eugene rarely jokes in his diary entries, and writes that he admires Epstein, but suspects that he is a homosexual, which bothers him - and it bothers him that it bothers him. Which is about as eloquent and honest a line as I can imagine.

Toomey goes through the expected tyrannical procedures familiar to us from a hundred movies, and from the war stories of our fathers and grandfathers, but again, Simon shows his dramatic gift via tiny nuances of characterization: no matter how harsh Toomey is on his men, the one time he will come to someone's defense is if anyone within the unit is anything but supportive of his fellow soldiers. And sure enough, halfway through the play, no one is complaining about the physical rigors of boot camp any more, and the aggressive barracks-room banter has acquired a sort of rough camaraderie and acceptance. Epstein is often called the central character of the piece, but Gambrell rushes a lot of his lines, and more often cedes focus to Fernandes. Williams likewise has got the right anger and aggression for Toomey, but I never quite accepted him as a tough non-com, although he'd make a terrific rigid captain or major. That said, he is quite convincing in an unexpectedly tender moment when the platoon loses one of their own, calling the youth "son" as only a leader can.   Williams has had a baptism by fire in his first two years of local theatre, tackling challenging roles in works by Henley and Albee, and I look forward to more from him in the future. I also suspect that a few run-throughs with a live audience by the time you read this will have given Gambrell the opportunity to even out a little of his delivery.

biloxi4As above, several scenes are Simon's chance to lend his considerable comedic talent to vintage skits about fresh recruits bantering with their drill sergeant, and GI's with a weekend pass at a whorehouse. Other scenes, however, are genuinely moving drama, with Simon demonstrating that his career could have gone in the direction of his idols like Fitzgerald, had comic genius not been his meal ticket to fame. Simon is of course famous for his comedies, but we need to remember that he has more Tony and Oscar nominations than any other writer in the world. He has won the Pulitzer, and four Tony awards, including one for this very play, which beat out  Tracers, As Is, and new works from August Wilson and David Rabe, for best play in 1985.  The juxtaposition of jokes and raw emotion may be a little unsettling for those looking for The Odd Couple, as will the language and frank sexuality, but the pay-off is worth it.

A couple of random notes: I commend the male cast for fully committing to their roles - all sport military buzz-cuts, significantly helping the show's authenticity, and all manage to do some intense push-ups on stage while not dropping a single line.  Also, full disclosure, I may not be entirely impartial here, because a lifetime ago I played Eugene's older brother in the third play in this trilogy, and when Eugene declares that there must be at least 52 sexual positions, since he once saw a pack of dirty playing cards, I instantly thought "Well, his brother had to have given him those!"

Biloxi Blues runs through Sat. March 29th at Workshop Theatre; call the box office at (803) 799-6551, or visit http://www.workshoptheatre.com/BiloxiBlues.html for ticket information.

~ August Krickel

 

 

Directing Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia" at USC - a guest blog by Louis Butelli

So, here I am, about to eat dinner at Al-Amir restaurant in beautiful downtown Columbia, and prepare for one last, pre-tech run-through of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia with the company of actors and artists at USC’s Theatre SC.  We’ve been on quite a journey to get to this point. Having spent weeks reading, studying, and blocking the play in a rehearsal hall, and then having spent this week on stage at Drayton Hall as the set grew up around us, we are now on the verge of sharing this play with the public. As the show’s director, I couldn’t be more excited. arcadia-3.jpg Pictured, from left: James Costello, Melissa Reed Caption: Septimus (James Costello) tutors precocious child-genius Thomasina (Melissa Reed)  while trying to avoid a scandalous confrontation in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, presented by Theatre  SC September 27 - October 5 at Drayton Hall Theatre.  Photographer: Jason Ayer

A little bit of background. I’ve been working as an actor, director, educator, and writer for the past 17 years. Back in 1998, I booked a job as an actor for a touring Shakespeare company which, at the time, was in residence at USC. For a couple of years, we would come to Columbia to rehearse, and then open our shows at the Koger Center before taking them all over the country. Those early years were very happy times, and it was through working for this company that I met director Robert Richmond, with whom I have continued to collaborate ever since, frequently at the Folger Theatre in Washington DC, where we have broken attendance and box office records, and been nominated for (and won!) several Helen Hayes Awards.

Here in Columbia, Robert and I created a theater piece based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, called A Tale Told By An Idiot. A comic book-inspired mash-up of the Scottish play with the story of original English terrorist Guy Fawkes, it played at USC’s Lab Theater on Wheat Street, and featured the talents of USC undergraduate theater students. People loved it. Some years later, I founded a theater company, Psittacus Productions, in Los Angeles and chose A Tale Told By An Idiot as our inaugural show. Robert came out to direct, we opened as part of the first annual Hollywood Fringe Festival, then transferred to the Son Of Semele Ensemble Theater, where we sold out and extended. The press was excellent, and we received an LA Weekly Theatre Award for our efforts.

My point in all of this is that, for the past fifteen years, I have felt a deep connection to USC, to Theatre SC, and to the great city of Columbia. When department Chair Jim Hunter invited me back down to direct Arcadia, I jumped at the opportunity.

For me, Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia is a very special play. To begin, it appeals to two very distinct parts of who I am, both as an artist and as a human being, about which more will follow.

arcadia-2.jpg Pictured, from left: Leeanna Rubin, Trey Hobbs Caption: Two present-day scholars, Hannah (Leeanna Rubin) and Bernard (Trey Hobbs), try to  uncover the intellectual truths (and possibly scandalous secrets) of a 19th century manor in Tom  Stoppard’s Arcadia, presented by Theatre SC at Drayton Hall Theatre September 27 - October 5.   Photographer: Jason Ayer

In the play, we encounter two sets of characters inhabiting the same drawing room in anestate on the English countryside. The first set is living in the year 1809. We meet a brilliant 13-year old girl, her randy tutor, her elegant mother, and various hangers-on. The whole household is scandalized – one of the guests, a minor poet, has been cuckolded by the tutor. There are allegations, handwritten challenges to duels, love notes passed, all while the young girl makes an important mathematical discovery, many years before the rest of the world would catch up. Additionally, everyone is in a tizzy because of a visit from that most famous of Romantics, Lord Byron, who is lurking, offstage, throughout the show.

The second set of characters live in the year 2013 – or, at least, in “the present day.” Here on the estate, we meet the noble descendants of the family from 1809. There are three siblings – a twenty-something male who is an Oxfordian mathematician, a saucy teenaged girl, and a fifteen-year-old boy who hasn’t spoken since age 5. Visiting the family, to research her next book, is a thirty-something author. Into this idyll charges a hotheaded, fame-hungry professor in his late thirties. He believes he is on the verge of a new discovery that will shake the foundations of English literary studies, particularly on the subject of Lord Byron. Gradually, the artifacts left behind from 1809 start showing up in 2013, and we watch the present day characters getting quite a few of the details wrong…while inching ever closer to the truth.

Pictured, from left: James Costello, Melissa Reed, Leeanna Rubin, Trey Hobbs Caption: Theatre SC presents Tom Stoppard’s award-winning Arcadia, a witty and hilarious  intellectual puzzle about the unquenchable thirst for knowledge, September 27 - October 5 at  Drayton Hall Theatre.  Set at an English manor in both the early 19th century and present day,  Arcadia introduces us to two groups of characters -- the property’s original residents and a  modern-day band of scholars trying to unearth their forebears’ hidden secrets.  “... one of the most  exquisite plays of the 20th century” (The Independent).   Photographer: Jason Ayer

Certainly, the play is populated by very intelligent, hyper-articulate people, who spend quite a lot of time talking – about theory, about math, about landscape gardening, about art, about poetry. More interestingly, though, they also discover that no matter how sure one may seem about their place in the world, it is love – and lust, and the terrifying un-knowability of other people – that throws a wrench in the works every time. As the mathematician Valentine says in the play, these things are “the attraction that Newton left out.” They are the flies in the ointment of a deterministic universe governed by “free will.”

As I said, this appeals to me personally in two ways. First of all, I am a pretty huge nerd. I love teasing apart big ideas. I love intellectual sparring and heated conversation. I love to read, and I love to research. That said, I am also an actor and a flesh and blood male. As follows, I also love the irrational. I know what it is to feel swept up with passion. I know what it is to run away with the circus. This play presses both of those buttons for me, and I hope that it will for you, too.

“Well, good for him,” you might think in reading along. “But so what?”

My point, I suppose, is to say that, in coming to direct this play – or, in fact, any play – one must find a point of entry. One must attempt to answer the question “why produce this play, and why now?” In the current climate of economic fragility, global unrest, mass shootings, a shrill and polarized news media, and a deadlocked government, why would one choose to put on a play that is simultaneously a “big idea” play, and a classic English farce?

There are two potential ways of answering that question, one of which is complex, and one of which is…less complex.

The complex, or at least the “literary” answer goes something like this: Stoppard, particularly in this play, reminds me of two literary titans from the history of drama, Shakespeare and Chekov. To be a bit reductive, both of those playwrights were conversant in creating drama during times of – and through the lens of – great social upheaval. Shakespeare wrote sprawling, imaginative plays against the backdrop of Elizabethan England, a place full of religious conflict, wars against the Spanish, bouts of plague, and a linguistic explosion. Chekov wrote stories about families languishing at a remove from society and, ultimately falling apart, in the years directly preceding the Russian Revolution. Both playwrights are concerned with people wrestling with lofty ideas while simultaneously unable to escape some of the baser parts of their own humanity.

At nine years old, Stoppard, a Jewish, Czech national, moved to England with his mother and English stepfather who, according to the stories once said to young Tom, “Don’t you realize I made you British?” Having been displaced by World War II, and having embraced England, and indeed Englishness, Stoppard has created a literary world that is characterized by rapid-fire wit, philosophizing, and issues of human rights, censorship, and political freedom. And sex.

As for his literary debt to Chekov, one might consider his play cycle, “The Coast of Utopia, which addresses social philosophy in pre-Revolutionary Russia and won the Tony Award for Best Play. As far as Shakespeare goes, I suggest that one re-watch the movie Shakespeare In Love, for which Stoppard won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

Intimidated yet? I certainly was!

Here’s the less complex answer. This play is really, really fun. Yes, it’s very talky. Yes, it’s very heavy on ideas. Yes, it isn’t packed with a huge amount of “event.” Sounds a bit like an episode of Seinfeld, no?

Seriously, though. When I think about the question of “why this play, and why now?” I keep returning to the Internet. One of the things that sets our little moment on earth apart from any other throughout all of history is the presence of the Internet – not just in our lives, but in our pockets, and on our nightstands, 24 hours a day, every single day.

When I think of my own propensity to click along, chasing a notion or idea from link to link, from graphic to video to article to image, ad nauseum – it reminds me of following Tom Stoppard’s characters as one idea leads to the next, and we bounce between 1809 and the present day, until those worlds collide and overlap in the last scene of the play.

And yet…this is a piece of theater. For me, what the theater does, that no other art form does, is bring a whole bunch of strangers together in real time, under one roof, to trade these ideas with artists themselves. We’re all breathing the same air. You can see and hear us, to be certain. But we can also see and hear you. You impact our performance. Moreover, without you, we simply couldn’t make this work of art come to life at all. In short, theater, by its very definition, needs you to be there with us.

I suppose that’s a really long-winded way of gently pleading with you to buy a ticket to see our show. We’ve all become sort of fascinated by the weird, time-traveling world of this play, and have started seeing little idea nuggets from this play everywhere we look – be it noticing the way the beautiful tendrils of milk stir into uniform color and heat in a coffee at Cool Beans, or the way the tree trunks extend to branches and into leaves and into veins-in-leaves ad infinitum while strolling along the Horseshoe.

You might like our show, or you might find it a spectacular bore. Regardless: if we can all share a few laughs, and you come away with some food for thought, and some things you might want to chat about with friends afterwards, or Google when you get home, then the experiment was worthwhile.

Won’t you come experiment with us?

To close, I’ll just say that working on this play has made me obsessed with fractals. I’m not a good enough writer to unpack fractal theory here, so I’ve included a link to a video animation (click HERE.)  In short, fractals are at the heart of the theory that our 13-year old girl discovers in 1809, and that our mathematician in 2013 extrapolates.

The video is another metaphor for Arcadia. Sometimes seeing a thing unfold makes more intuitive sense than hearing some nerdy director talk about it. So, click this link, and watch this video animation of fractals. If it exhilarates you, then you should definitely come and see our show.

Thanks for reading! See you at the theater!

 

~ Louis Butelli

Louis Butelli

Born and raised on Long Island, New York, Louis has spent the past seventeen years working as an actor, teacher, director, and writer. From 1998-2008, he was Artist-In-Residence and Company Clown for the Aquila Theatre Company. During that time, he played in over 25 productions of the works of William Shakespeare and other classical playwrights, appearing Off-Broadway, at major regional houses, on tour in the US to 49 states and across Europe; taught over 300 masterclasses; wrote, adapted and appeared in a new production of Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. Other credits include Folger Theatre; La Jolla Playhouse; LA Shakespeare Festival; Shakespeare Theatre Co, DC; Alabama Shakespeare Festival; Yale Rep; Long Wharf; Orlando Shakes; Pasadena Playhouse; Two River Theater, NJ; Alpine Theater Project, MT; Seaside Shakespeare of Nantucket; La Scala Opera’s West Side Story in Milan, Beirut, Nagoya, Fukuoka, Osaka, and Tokyo; many others. TV: The Unusuals, and All My Children (ABC), Law & Order, and L&O: Criminal Intent (NBC). He is co-founder and Executive Director of Psittacus Productions, for whom he has produced A Tale Told By An Idiot (LA Weekly Theater Award), and CYCLOPS: A Rock Opera (NYMF Award for Excellence, 3 LA Weekly Award Nominations, Pulitzer Prize Juror Nominee) which played a sold-out and extended run at the 2011 New York Musical Theatre Festival, and the World Premier of the company’s latest show, A True History, which had a workshop at the Obie Award-winning Vineyard Theatre in New York City. He is honored every day he is able to go to work in the service of a great story.

Arcadia opens Friday, September 27 at USC's Drayton Hall Theatre, and runs through Saturday, October 5.   Show times for Arcadia are 8 PM Wednesdays-Fridays, 7 PM Saturdays and 3 PM on the first Sunday. Tickets for the production are $12 for students, $16 for USC faculty/staff, military personnel and seniors 60+, and $18 for the general public. Tickets can be purchased in advance by calling 803-777-2551 or by visiting the Longstreet Theatre box office, which is open Monday-Friday, 12:30 -5:30 PM.  Drayton Hall Theatre is located at 1214 College St.  For more information, contact  Kevin Bush at 803-777-9353, or bushk@mailbox.sc.edu.

Cast in this production are graduate acting students James Costello, Kate Dzvonik, Trey Hobbs, Josiah Laubenstein, Cory Lipman, Melissa Reed, Laurie Roberts and Leeanna Rubin, as well as undergraduate students Jason Fernandes, Grayson Garrick and Liam MacDougall.  Acting instructor David Britt will also appear in the production.   Graduate students Xuemei Cao and Sean Smith will design the set and costumes, respectively.   Guest artist Baxter Engle will create the sound design.  Instructor Eric Morris will design lighting.  Guest artist Todd Stuart will craft the show's intricate props.

 

Neil Simon's "Brighton Beach Memoirs" at Workshop Theatre - a review

Eugene Jerome is a dreamer, spinning baseball playoff fantasies in which he is both star and announcer. These dreams alternate with visions of being a writer, wishesthat his family might occasionally cut him some slack, and most importantly, wishes of seeing a girl naked.  Any girl, even if it's his nubile cousin Nora, staying with the Jeromes along with her mother and little sister after her father's death. In other words, Eugene is a 15-year-old boy, and the alter-ego for author Neil Simon, whose acclaimed Brighton Beach Memoirs is very loosely based on his own life.

In Workshop Theatre’s new production of this classic, both Jared Kemmerling, as Eugene, and Connor Odom, as older brother Stanley, are playing about two years above their own age, but capture the essences of their characters perfectly. As narrator, Kemmerling addresses the audience directly, setting up assorted family issues that take place over a week in September of 1937, as seen from the highly subjective point of view of a bright but smart-aleck teenager, who just happens to have the most successful comedy writer of the 20th century providing his dialogue.  These interactions play out, with Eugene often adding a running commentary along the way via asides to the audience. The role of Eugene made a star of Matthew Broderick on Broadway and earned him a Tony, and Broderick has to some extent been playing the same impish wisecracker who talks to the audience ever since.  Kemmerling really has good timing and stage presence, especially for such a young actor, and Odom's age actually works, giving him the impression of being a baby-faced young adult, which explains some of his struggles to make decisions and be taken seriously as a man, not a boy.

I must confess that it's hard for me to be completely impartial here since I know these folks so well.  No, not the actors, although I've met a few of the older cast members in passing a few times, but rather the characters, as some 22 years ago I played older brother Stanley in a local production of Simon's sequel to this play.  For me the most moving moments here were the natural interaction between the two brothers, and Stanley's frank discussions with his father about what it means to be an adult, but take that with a grain of salt.

The beauty of this show (and what brought it so much acclaim in the 80's) was that it marked a change in tone for Simon, who had already been mining his own life experiences for material for years. (If you ever want to see two brothers, one naive and one worldly, as swinging bachelors in New York, check out Simon's very first play, Come Blow Your Horn; if you're curious about how one copes after divorce, see The Odd Couple, or for how the other copes after the death of a spouse, see Chapter Two.) Here Simon takes his ear for dialogue and ability to portray the range of ordinary human emotions, and allows them to flow naturally for entire

scenes, without significant punch lines, until Eugene pops in at the end to sum everything up from the viewpoint of both the sarcastic kid, and the mature writer's memory.  Upstairs, the brothers engage in frank, and hilarious, discussion of the mechanics of puberty that wouldn't be out of place in American Pie or Portnoy's Complaint.  Downstairs, it's close to Tennessee Williams territory as the adults wrestle with problems that threaten to tear the family apart. Perhaps in the greater scope of things they don't have it so bad: Dad risks his health by working multiple jobs to support his family in the middle of the Depression, widow Blanche imagines herself as unemployable, unattractive, and a burden to her sister, hot cousin Nora and little sister Laurie feel neglected and under-valued by their still-grieving mom, and Stanley makes some unwise decisions at work.  So, pretty much any family anywhere, but Simon's genius allows us to see how intensely routine domestic conflicts can affect those involved. There is no perfect resolution; instead, forgiveness, acceptance, compromise, the occasional white lie, and the lost art of actually talking things out provide a fragile peace, until the next mini-crisis arises.

Samantha Elkins, as Blanche, and Lou Warth, as mom Kate, are best at capturing the

sound and tone of Jewish Brooklyn residents, but Kemmerling was getting there even as the opening night performance progressed. The pale blonde Warth has gone brunette, while the striking Elkins (who stepped into this role only two and a half weeks before opening) dons glasses, pins her hair back, and drops her voice by an octave or so to play much older than her own age. Both are quite believable, and do some good dramatic work in a deeply hurtful argument over virtually nothing.  Their best moment together comes as both draw inward, their backs turned as they fight back tears, unable to express how shocked and sad each is to have turned on her sister. Father Jack (Hunter Boyle) is a long-suffering mensch who accepts his mandatory role as head of the family in any number of "just wait 'til your father gets home" scenarios, but prefers to offer his modest wisdom as reasonable advice. Boyle is an accomplished, veteran actor who has distinguished himself when cast against type, especially as a sympathetic Juan Peron a few years ago in Evita. Here, sadly he is simply the wrong actor for the role, and isn't particularly believable. Fortunately, he delivers his lines with good timing and clarity, allowing his partners on stage to shine in their scenes. The miscasting doesn't really hurt the play much at all, but it doesn't help anything either.  Allie Stubbs and Catherine Davenport alternate as Nora; I saw the latter on opening night, and she and Kimberly Hubbard (as Laurie) have some good moments on stage, together and with others, but I must warn all of the younger cast members: as a former Stanley, I can attest that the upstairs level of the set will swallow your lines, so project as you have never projected before!

Speaking of that upstairs level, Randy Strange's set design is practical: a completely realistic rectangular box with the fourth wall removed would be boring, and would pose sightline difficulties for audiences on each side of center. Instead, the home's living and dining room areas are opened out, giving the actors plenty of space in which to move, and the upstairs bedrooms are angled and situated to be as close to the audience as possible. (But a few extra mikes up there still couldn't hurt.)  Director David Britt successfully helps his cast to navigate the fine line between comedy and drama which the characters cross and recross so often. Still, with the name Neil Simon attached, a fair number of potential audience members are likely to be convinced that this is hokey, sit-com style family fluff, which it isn't. Likewise, others may be taken aback by the blunt discussions of sexuality, some salty language, and a few stretches of fairly dark conflict, which are no worse than anything on, say, Mad Men, but just be advised. Ultimately this is one of the most beloved and praised works from one of the biggest comic playwrights of the last 60 years, performed capably by some good local actors, in an enjoyable community theatre context. Brighton Beach Memoirs run through Sat. Jan. 26th; contact the Workshop box office at 799-6551 for ticket information.

~ August Krickel