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Saturday, February 28, 2015 |  Madison, WI: -8.0° F  Fair
Arts
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Neil Simon's sentimental journey
The playwright looks back in Brighton Beach Memoirs
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The nostalgia is touching and empathetic.
The nostalgia is touching and empathetic.
Credit:Marie Schulte

Madison Theatre Guild's production of Brighton Beach Memoirs tells the story of Eugene and his Jewish American family in the Depression years. Eugene lives in Brooklyn with his mother, father and brother Stanley, as well as his widowed aunt Blanche and two cousins, Nora and Laurie.

As his family faces economic hardships and worries about relatives caught in the growing conflict in Europe, Eugene (Frankie Pobar Lay) deals with the problems of adolescence - his budding sexuality, displaced onto the 16-year-old Nora, his aspirations for adulthood ("How am I ever going to play for the Yankees with a name like Eugene Morris Jerome?").

The play is the first of three autobiographical plays written by Neil Simon, the screen and stage writer of The Odd Couple and The Goodbye Girl fame. It's hard to write about a Neil Simon play without falling back on descriptions of his work that have become clichéd: funny, touching, empathetic. But Brighton Beach Memoirs is all these things.

Simon's characters are vividly and recognizably human, and he is a master of comic timing and juxtaposition, crafting humorous moments out of tensions. In one of the play's best lines, Stanley (Keith Christianson), who has just been fired, tells the pubescent Eugene, "I have a major problem in my life. I don't have time to draw girls masturbating for you." In another funny moment, as a serious discussion about the withering family budget takes place downstairs in the living room, Eugene suddenly bursts through the door of his upstairs bedroom screaming, "My cousin saw me on the crapper!"

This layering of problems, which are clearly different in direness to the audience but equally dramatic to Eugene, is a marker of Simon's style, and it is successfully enhanced by director Joan Brooks' staging choices as well as Lay's acute sense of timing. They make Brighton Beach Memoirs a brisk, enjoyable, thoroughly entertaining ride.

Despite these strengths, however, the acting is somewhat uneven. Lay's delivery favors a rapid, restless cadence, which works well in some moments but becomes predictable in others. Christianson chooses a rather odd mode of character development, seemingly interpreting the 1930s setting through a film noir lens and thus playing Stanley with vaguely Bogart-esque, clipped intonations and emotional dryness.

The more seasoned performers, though, like Edward Marion, Maxine Fleckner Ducey and Rebecca Raether, bring a more consistent presence to the stage. They seem practiced, but they still have the ability to respond spontaneously to the action around them.

Even so, I saw the play early in its run. The problems may be worked out as the cast tightens and coheres with subsequent performances.

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