Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXV, No. 13
Wednesday, March 30, 2011
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BROTHERS BONDING: Eugene (Jordan Adelson, right) consults with big brother Stanley (Matthew Seely) on a range of adolescent, personal, and family matters in Theatre Intime’s production of Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs” at Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus for one more weekend.

Brooklyn, the Depression — Coming of Age With Laughter and Tears; Theatre Intime Stages Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs”

Donald Gilpin

Neil Simon, over the past 50 years since Come Blow Your Horn (1961) hit Broadway, has been America’s most prolific and popular playwright. Barefoot in the Park (1963), The Odd Couple (1965), Biloxi Blues (1985), Broadway Bound (1986), Lost in Yonkers (1991) and about 30 more stage plays (most on Broadway), a Pulitzer Prize, three Tony Awards for Best Play, more than 20 screenplays — Mr. Simon’s new work was constantly on Broadway throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s. He slowed down a bit into the 90s and 2000s — He’s now 83 — but his best plays continue to be revived frequently all over the world.

Brighton Beach Memoirs, currently playing at Theatre Intime on the Princeton University campus, is one of Neil Simon’s most popular and most frequently produced comedies. It was a Broadway hit of 1983 (and years afterwards, for a run of 1530 performances), starring Matthew Broderick, and a successful 1986 movie.

The partly-autobiographical story of 15-year-old Eugene Jerome, growing up in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn in the dark Depression days of 1937, Brighton Beach Memoirs strikes a delicate balance of jokes and tears, displaying a sharp comic touch in finely tuned equilibrium with the poignant portrayal of a beleaguered family under financial, emotional, and moral duress.

The undergraduate Intime company, under the direction of sophomore Emma Watt, succeeds to some extent in surmounting the difficulties in this challenging material. Not surprisingly, the four teen-aged characters — Eugene, his brother, and the two girl cousins, who moved in with their mother to share the small house after their father’s death — come to life more convincingly than the three middle-aged characters, Eugene’s parents and aunt.

Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs” will be playing this Thursday and Friday, March 31 and April 1, at 8 p.m. and Saturday, April 2, at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. in the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus. For information call (609) 258-1742 or visit

Brighton Beach Memoirs may be Eugene’s story, but his parents Kate (Amy Gopinathan), “a strong Jewish matriarch,” and her stalwart, hard-working husband Jack (Jake Jackson) must provide the play’s foundation. Problems with diction and credibility weaken both the humor and the emotional impact here. Kathy Harwood’s hapless, long-suffering Aunt Blanche is sympathetic and engaging in her conflict-plagued interactions with her sister and daughters, but Ms. Gopinathan’s Kate and Mr. Jackson’s Jack are uneven in their character portrayals and, especially in the second of two acts, they slow the pace of this otherwise dynamic, rapid-fire comic drama.

Fortunately, Jordan Adelson’s Eugene is focused, clear, energetic, and magnetic as he shares with the audience his struggles towards adulthood. Moving back and forth from the midst of the action to a narrative role on the sidelines, this Eugene, the playwright’s alter ego, carries a small notebook, frequently jotting down material for his “memoirs,” as he aspires to transcend his current travails and become a writer. Trapped, however, in their crowded tiny house, Eugene often finds his loftiest dreams frustrated by family members or simply by the restrictions of adolescence and the economic realities of his world.

Eugene’s wit, enthusiasm for life, and incisive sense of humor take the audience through a week of crisis in the life of his beleaguered family. Mr. Adelson delivers the comic one-liners with perfect timing. He creates a character, engulfed in the anguish of growing up, who is easy to warm up to and understand. His perspectives on himself, his situation in the family and his relationships with his parents, his brother Stanley (Matthew Seely), his younger cousin Laurie (Claire Greene) and his lust-filled crush on his 16-year-old cousin Nora (Sarah Paton) generate Mr. Simon’s sharpest writing here. Mr. Adelson makes the most of these family conflicts.

Particularly effective — funny, moving, strikingly true-to-life — are several scenes between Eugene and his eighteen-year-old brother, in which Eugene’s prurient curiosity and early adolescent traumas provide much amusement. Despite Eugene’s immaturity, the brothers also share the most important thoughts and feelings of their lives, and they bond in taking on the personal and family challenges. Mr. Seely’s Stanley is thoroughly convincing in several high-intensity encounters with his brother and his father, and he establishes himself as a strong counterpart to the main character.

Ms. Greene as the bratty, over-indulged, 13-year-old Laurie and Ms. Paton as the beautiful older cousin and object of Eugene’s lustful fantasies are both credible and mostly effective in winning the audience’s interest and understanding. Ms. Paton is particularly affecting in her pride, anger, and determination to follow her dreams in pursuit of a career on stage.

The set, designed by Aryeh Stein-Azen with lighting by Alex Mannix, makes the most of the tight Theatre Intime stage to present realistically the downstairs rooms of the Jerome house and two upstairs bedrooms upstage above. Costumes by Aliyah Donsky provide an air of the 1930s and complement each characterization.

“The way I see things,” Neil Simon once described, “life is both sad and funny. I can’t imagine a comical situation that isn’t at the same time also painful. I used to ask myself: What is a humorous situation? Now I ask: What is a sad situation and how can I tell it humorously?”

Brighton Beach Memoirs may be Mr. Simon’s best example of a sad situation told humorously, and this Theatre Intime production — not every moment but definitely in a number of rich scenes — delivers simultaneously both that sparkling comedy and the emotional depths that emerge from these endearing characters and their troubles.

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