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Interplayers opens with Neil Simon comedy

Phoenix Tage stars as Stanley, left, and Nich Witham as Eugene in a scene from Interplayers’ production of Neil Simon’s play “Brighton Beach Memoirs.” (Colin Mulvany)
Phoenix Tage stars as Stanley, left, and Nich Witham as Eugene in a scene from Interplayers’ production of Neil Simon’s play “Brighton Beach Memoirs.” (Colin Mulvany)

‘Brighton Beach Memoirs’ based on a fictionalized version of himself

There’s a great monologue in Neil Simon’s semi-autobiographical comedy “Brighton Beach Memoirs” in which the play’s protagonist, teenager Eugene Jerome, details the deliberately elusive nature of adult conversations.

In regard to diseases, Eugene says, his mother never outright names the ailment she’s talking about, instead referring to Aunt Blanche’s asthma as her “situation.” Even when she’s more direct, she resorts to whispering, out of fear that God might hear her say “diphtheria” and strike her down with it. (Eugene says, “Uncle Dave died six years ago from …” – his voice turns into a hissing whisper – “…  cancer.”)

That mixture of whimsy and insight is typical of Simon’s plays, and “Memoirs” is one of his many works, along with “The Odd Couple” and “Barefoot in the Park,” that has been performed time and again since its 1983 debut on Broadway, when Matthew Broderick originated the role of Eugene.

Tonight, Interplayers kicks off its 33rd season with its own interpretation of “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” directed by Michael Weaver.

The play is set in Depression-era Brooklyn, and Eugene, who’s a fictionalized version of Simon, lives in a too-small house with his parents, his older brother, his widowed aunt and her two daughters. “They’re all on top of each other all of the time,” Weaver said of the show’s cramped setting.

We see the world, both inside and outside the Jerome household, through Eugene’s innocent yet perceptive eyes – his feelings about his Polish and Jewish heritage, his idolatry of older brother Stanley, and his frustrations and fascinations with the opposite sex. Eugene spends a lot of time speaking directly to the audience, revealing his innermost thoughts, feelings and observations.

It may be set in 1937, but Weaver says the themes of “Memoirs,” especially those involving Eugene’s growing pains and the strains of a bickering but loving family, are timeless. “The themes of family and perseverance and coming of age … everybody has to go through that,” he said. “And I think that Simon handles it in a really refreshing and honest way. He doesn’t pull punches with it.”

Simon followed the exploits of Eugene Jerome in two more plays – “Biloxi Blues,” about his experiences in basic training during WWII, and “Broadway Bound,” in which the Jerome brothers try to make it big as comedy writers on the radio. But “Brighton Beach Memoirs” is the installment of the so-called “Eugene trilogy” that best captures the essence of Simon’s comic voice.

Sure, you’ll hear a fair share of quips and one-liners, but Simon draws his characters with frankness and honesty, which elevates the show beyond, as Weaver puts it, merely a “joke machine.”

“It’s about family – that’s the real crux of the play,” Weaver said. “Family trumps everything. Even under really hard times and really difficult situations, if the family sticks together, you can make it through.”