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‘Brighton Beach Memoirs’ generates good vibes

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March 8, 2011 |

Craig Piaget gives a winning performance as 15-year-old Eugene in Neil Simon's "Brighton Beach Memoirs." Barry Wisdom/Courtesy photo

Davis is a university town, populated by tens of thousands of students whose childhood memories date from, oh, somewhere around the mid- to late 1990s. So before we get to reviewing Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs” — which opened at the Sacramento Theatre Company last weekend — perhaps it’s best to briefly glance back at the playwright’s career.

Simon broke into television in 1950, writing jokes for Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows.” That series went off the air in 1954, two years before this reviewer was born. Simon began a long string of Broadway comedies in 1961.

His best-known piece is undoubtedly “The Odd Couple” — about two guys living together, one neat, the other sloppy — which enjoyed a long Broadway run starting in 1965, and spawned a 1968 movie, followed by a TV series in the early 1970s, a TV movie spin-off, a second TV series in the 1980s, etc.

Simon even wrote a gender-inverted version (“The Female Odd Couple”) in 1986. The male and female versions of the play continue to enjoy something approaching life eternal on the dinner theater circuit.

Simon wrote many other commercially successful comedies that were turned into films — “The Sunshine Boys” (1972) being an example.

By the 1980s, he was living well on the royalties. But Simon also developed a hankering to be taken more seriously as a playwright, and he wrote a trilogy of semi-autobiographical plays, of which “Brighton Beach Memoirs” (1983) was the first.

The setting is Brooklyn in 1937 — with the Great Depression dragging on, and the Nazis on the rise in Europe. The play’s characters are all members of an extended Jewish family, with 15-year-old Eugene — bright, full of beans, fascinated by baseball and sexually curious — serving as the viewpoint character (and stand-in for Neil Simon as a teen).

It’s a family comedy, with tension rising between sisters Kate (actress Jamie Jones) and Blanche (Julie Anchor). Blanche’s husband has died, and money’s tight, so Blanche has moved in with Kate’s family, which is to say the house is too crowded.

Kate and Blanche both have kids verging on adulthood. Stanley (Eason Donner) has finished high school and has an entry-level job. Nora (Raelyn Torngren, who alternates with Abbey Williams-Campbell) is a 16-year-old, taking dancing lessons and dreaming of being in a Broadway musical. Laurie (Rachel Finerman, alternating with Lauren Metzinger) is the pig-tailed kid sister with a “heart flutter,” and pampered as a result.

As the play’s narrator, Eugene — played by Craig Piaget, an energetic (almost hyper) young actor who also works as a clown — is the natural center of attention. And he gives a winning performance, smirking and nervy, running to the store when his mom sends him to buy butter.

But there’s also a lot of quiet gravity to Matt K. Miller’s performance as Jack, the hard-working dad who’s working multiple jobs (to the detriment of his health) trying to feed his wife Kate, his sister-in-law Blanche, and their kids — in addition to mentoring his sons, and serving as surrogate father for his nieces. The man has a lot on his plate, and Miller makes the character credible.

There’s also good chemistry between Jones and Anchor as the two sisters. Ten years ago, these two actresses were typically cast as the female lead in many a comedy. But time marches on, and they’re now radiating middle-aged maternal charm, in addition to loving their spouse (or seeking a new love). This production is a very good vehicle for both of them.

In addition to playing Jack, Miller directed the play — with an assist from Sacramento actor/director Greg Alexander, who is the go-to-guy in these parts for well-delivered punch lines and physical comedy. It’s a good combination — the jokes just keep on coming, but at the same time Miller gets the play to speak to our own time, with several characters worried about losing their jobs in a sputtering economy, and struggling to keep food on the dinner table.

The teenagers-coming-of-age angle is also nicely handled, along with the loving (yet difficult) relationships between the teenage characters and the older generation.

Storm clouds gather periodically, as the threat of joblessness rears its head, and the teens get into conflicts, and Jack becomes worried that his relatives may not get out of Poland before the Nazis take control. But dark comedy is not Neil Simon’s thing — nasty arguments give way to sunny reconciliations, and the story moves on.

This is not to say that “Brighton Beach Memoirs” is a short play — at an hour and 20 minutes, the first half is as long as many new plays nowadays. All in all, the show runs about 2 1/2 hours — a standard length when Simon was a rising playwright in the 1950s and 1960s.

It’s now been nearly 20 years since Simon has written a certifiable hit (1993’s “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” being the most recent), but there’s still plenty to like in this local production of “Brighton Beach Memoirs.”

What: “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” presented by the Sacramento Theatre Company

When: 6:30 p.m. Wednesdays, 12:30 and 6:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through March 27

Where:  1419 H St., Sacramento

Tickets: $34-$46 general, $29-$41 seniors, $15-$20 students; (916) 443.6722 or (888) 4.STC.TIX, http://www.sactheatre.org

— Reach Jeff Hudson at jhudson@davisenterprise.net or (530) 747-8055. Comment on this story at www.davisenterprise.com

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