by Clark Groome
Neil Simon has written some of the English-speaking theater’s most popular plays. The prolific author of “Come Blow Your Horn,” “Barefoot in the Park,” “The Odd Couple,” “Plaza Suite.” “The Prisoner of Second Avenue,” “Lost in Yonkers,” “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” and so many other plays and musicals has quite possibly created more laughs than anyone who ever lived. It wasn’t until late in his career that he actually went below the surface of his characters to create a play that was both witty and moving.
In what has come to be known as his “BB Trilogy,” Simon turned to his own life as the subject of what are arguably his deepest and most complete plays: “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” “Biloxi Blues” and “Broadway Bound.”
The first of the three is receiving a production at Act II Playhouse in Ambler through June 18 that is generally decent and sometimes better that that.
“Brighton Beach Memoirs” introduces audiences to the family of Eugene Morris Jerome, the character who is the author’s surrogate. He’s a delightful fellow surrounded by a family that for all its trials is supportive and loving as well as just a tad wacky.
This play, like the others in the series, depends for its life on Eugene. In this first encounter with him, he’s 15 years old and torn between wanting a career playing for the Yankees or becoming a writer. He would consider giving up both if he could see his cousin Nora naked for two-and-one-half seconds.
Productions of “Brighton Beach” center on and grow from the actor playing Jerome, a role originated on Broadway by the inestimable Matthew Broderick early in his career.
In the Act II production, ably directed by William Roudebush, DJ Gleason’s performance is a thing of beauty. He embodies the anxieties and innocence of a 1937 15-year-old, making him a character who is not only funny but appealing and interesting as well.
Not everyone in the cast is up to Gleason’s high standards. Julianna Zinkel as Jerome’s Aunt Blanche, Peter Bisgaier as his father and Jonathan Silver as big brother Stanley are all very good. The others — Mary Elizabeth Scallen as Jerome’s mother and Eileen Cella and Katie Stahl as cousins Laurie and Nora — gave performances that were more mechanical than the others, resulting in their presence being just a bit flat.
Dirk Durosette designed a bi-level set that made the tiny Act II stage look larger than it is, and that accommodated the action very well. John Stovicek’s sound design and Jennifer Povich’s costumes capture the 1937 period appropriately. James Leitners’ lighting design faced some mechanical issues on opening night, but when it was working at full capacity it was spot on.
Roudebush’s direction brings out the Jerome family’s humanity as well as any of the five “Brighton Beach” productions I’ve seen. That makes it, despite its flaws, a worthwhile production of this fine and durable play.
For tickets call 215-654-0200 or visit www.act2.org