It’s easy to dismiss playwright Neil Simon as an old-school jokester. As typified by his most famous and enduring work, “The Odd Couple,” his plays can be highly entertaining but not particularly deep.
Virginia Repertory Theatre’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs” has many of the Simon hallmarks: sharply drawn characters, witty dialogue and a comprehensive understanding of New York Jewish life. But it transcends some of the seminal playwright’s other works by anchoring the comedy in genuine, heartfelt family dynamics.
Though “Memoirs” is peppered with one-liners, the jokes aren’t cheap or unearned, and some of the strongest scenes are intensely dramatic confrontations that director Steve Perigard orchestrates with finely attenuated sensitivity.
Brighton Beach is an area in Brooklyn that, in 1937, was inhabited by first- and second-generation immigrant families who still were suffering the aftereffects of the Great Depression. In “Memoirs,” Jack Jerome (played by Andrew Boothby) is a diligent textile worker who already was struggling to support his wife and two sons before he took in his sister-in-law, Blanche (Sara Heifetz, and her two daughters after Blanche’s husband died. The family’s foibles are narrated by Jack’s younger son, Eugene (Tyler Stevens), an aspiring writer who, at 15, is bubbling over with antic energy and smart-aleck wit.
During the course of a week, Jack’s older son, Stanley (Trevor Craft), has two major work-related crises, Blanche considers pursuing a romantic interest, Blanche’s daughter Nora (Meg Carnahan) gets a potential life-changing offer, and Jack has a medical crisis that stresses out his wife, Kate (Jill Bari Steinberg), causing her to lash out at Blanche.
It’s a lot of drama stuffed into a short amount of time, but Perigard moves the action around designer Terrie Powers’ remarkably compact four-room set without it seeming rushed. As Eugene, Stevens is a revelation. He offers direct commentary to the audience that’s filled with hilarious adolescent horniness one minute, then poignant hero-worship of his big brother the next. All of the young actors in the cast shine. Carnahan ably navigates the complicated relationship between Blanche and Nora while Craft delivers an earnest, authentic portrayal of a young man facing the first challenges of adulthood. All the while, Molly Nugent tosses off delightfully sardonic asides as the pampered younger daughter Laurie.
The grownups are no slouches either, with Boothby impressively straddling the line between gruff patriarch and inordinately sensitive household peacemaker. He shares a comfortable, playful chemistry with Steinberg, who nails her classic Jewish mother portrayal, complete with such nonsensical food-centric commandments as, “Stop that yelling -- I have a cake in the oven!” Heifetz’s mousy Blanche gets a little lost amid the strong personalities but she succeeds in giving a nuanced portrayal of a woman stuck in a life she didn’t bargain for, managing to find confidence and affirmation in the end.
Powers’ impeccable set is enhanced by Zach Townsend’s subtle lighting, and costume designer Sue Griffin adorns the characters in nicely lived-in, period-appropriate garb. There’s no dialect coach listed for the production and, while the intensity of the characters’ accents vary widely, none stray from believability.
“Memoirs” doesn’t skimp on the jokes but the comedy ends up being the savory sauce that adds flavor to an already satisfying and meaty family drama.
“Brighton Beach Memoirs” runs through Aug. 28 at Virginia Repertory Theatre’s Hanover Tavern. Visit va-rep.org for tickets and information.