New York theater insiders have been wondering for months exactly how Chicago director David Cromer -- currently hotter than hot thanks to the transfers of his acclaimed productions of Adding Machine and Our Town -- would handle the high-profile assignment of staging the Broadway revivals of Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound, which will run in repertory under the heading The Neil Simon Plays.
Brighton, which opened Sunday night (Bound will follow in a few weeks), won't fully satisfy the director's fans in that he has imposed no new spin on Simon's nostalgic comedy-drama. But the production does illustrate Cromer's particular talent for getting to the emotional heart of whatever he tackles.
This mainly well-acted production is a more sober rendition than the original 1983 Broadway staging, which starred Matthew Broderick and ran for more than three years. While not neglecting the laughs, this is a harsher, darker version that might not prove as crowd-pleasing.
Set in the titular Brooklyn neighborhood during the Depression, the autobiographical work centers on young Eugene Morris Jerome (Noah Robbins), who wants to be a writer someday but whose principal concerns at the moment are the New York Yankees and seeing a naked girl.
His relatives have greater problems on their minds. Father Jack (Dennis Boutsikaris), old before his time, is struggling to support his extended family even while holding down several jobs. Mother Kate (Laurie Metcalf) has her hands full caring for two sons and her asthmatic, widowed sister Blanche (Jessica Hecht) and her two daughters (Gracie Bea Lawrence, Alexandra Socha). Older brother Stanley (Santino Fontana) is in danger of losing his job after openly defying his boss.
Add to that an atmosphere of impending war and the unknown fate of the family's relatives in Europe, and you have the makings of a somber drama indeed.
Except, of course, that this is Neil Simon we're talking about, so the evening is filled with his trademark hilarious one-liners, many of them delivered by his young alter ego directly to the audience. But as is the case with so many of the playwright's works, most of the characters have a tendency to sound like seasoned vaudeville comics.
Cromer's staging downplays this aspect. Although Eugene's monologues still score big laughs, much of the rest of the humor has been toned down, giving the play a somewhat more realistic feel even while paradoxically exposing its essential lack of depth.
Still, the evening largely works, thanks in large part to the excellent ensemble. Robbins, whose credits include playing Max Bialystock in his high school production of The Producers, is a real find as Eugene, managing to be touching and hilarious. Metcalf's harsh Kate takes some getting used to, at least until the actress slowly and cannily reveals the character's underlying vulnerabilities; Fontana is warmly engaging as Stanley; Boutsikaris is moving as the physically and emotionally exhausted Jack; Hecht, though sometimes mannered, is effective as Blanche, and Socha and Lawrence do fine in the relatively undeveloped roles of the daughters.
The production perfectly conveys the proper period atmosphere thanks to John Lee Beatty's fully lived-in, two-story-house set design and Jane Greenwood's appropriately drab costumes.