By Tristan Lejeune
At a certain point, nostalgia can fold in on itself. Piled high or stacked deep enough, misty-eyed fondness for times gone by becomes self-sustaining, draping cute little doilies on warm memories and international horrors alike.
Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs paints in exactly one color: wistful beige. And it uses a wide brush. Theatre J didn’t go with an ugly wallpaper to build its 1937 set; it went with all the ugly wallpapers. Literally and figuratively, there’s too much chintz to see much of anything else. Occasionally, an actor’s pathos or Simon’s wit breaks through the brown gloom, but this production is most comfortable being sentimentally mediocre.
Remember when you were young, and everything seemed possible? When you parents loomed as large as giants, and the Yankees were like super-heroes? Remember when you lusted after your 16-year-old first cousin, ogling her legs under the dinner table and giving off so much pubescent heat your older brother described the cousin’s naked body and taught you about masturbation just to shut you up? Remember when Hitler was about to ravage Europe, but are we really having liver and cabbage for dinner again?
No? Me neither.
Eugene Morris Jerome (Cole Sitilides) lives with his parents, brother, aunt, and two cousins (and there may be more relatives on the way, fleeing the Holocaust across the sea) in a comfy-if-cramped Brighton Beach two-story. Everyone seems to work two jobs and still be looking for work as the family of seven struggles to make ends meet. Still, there’s ice cream, words of wisdom, and other sources of future homesickness to get sentimental over.
Eugene is the kind of protagonist who identifies (and declares!) the moment his childhood ends. He fantasizes about sports stardom, but spends most of his time running back and forth to the grocery store. His insatiable horniness is, for a boy his age, quite realistic, but that doesn’t make it exciting to watch.
Sitilides is engaging enough of an actor, though he’s too young for the Jimmy Durante impression it sounds like he’s doing. Give him a few years and this kid will be a talent to be reckoned with, but this Brighton Beach, directed by Matt Torney, isn’t as funny as it should be.
Don’t blame the parents. Michael Glenn and Susan Rome are great as Eugene’s mom and pop — they nail both the timing and the chemistry; you have no trouble believing they’ve known each other for 20 years. But well before the first act is over, audiences may find themselves wondering why the show is considered so canonical.
As the world celebrates Passover, theatre about a loving, intelligent Jewish family certainly doesn’t feel out of place. But the nostalgia factor is so thick here, it’s tough to hear what the Jeromes actually have to say.
Schmaltz, after all, is really only as good as what you cook with it.