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Brighton Beach Memoirs

Comedy and tragedy uneasily mingle in Neil Simon’s semi-autobiographical classic

Brothers Eugene (Drew Bates) and Stanley (Andrew Fox Burden) exchange heated words. Photo credit: Tim Johnston

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The household presented in Lakewood Playhouse's production of Brighton Beach Memoirs is one of a rumbling, simmering strife. Economic hardships and unresolved resentments have been so thoroughly woven into the fabric of this family that everyone has been inured to a general feeling of anxiety. I certainly felt a bit anxious watching this play, with its depiction of the Jerome family's money woes and familial friction ringing almost too true to me. Brighton Beach Memoirs -- the first in Neil Simon's semi-autobiographical trilogy, followed by Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound -- is saved from falling into a pit of tragedy by an invigorating spark of humanity, and by characters who feel lived-in, and who carry a deep love for one another. While mostly considered a comedy, Brighton Beach Memoirs finds its most persuasive moments in interpersonal drama, with moments of levity breaking up the tension.

Simon's avatar, Eugene (Drew Bates), is a 15-year-old boy in 1937's Brooklyn, mostly concerned with his dreams of being a writer, and dealing with his sexual awakening. Joining him, in his overwhelming, seven-person house, are his parents Kate and Jack (Pamela Roza and W. Scott Pinkston), his aunt Blanche (Brynne Garman), his slightly more worldly older brother Stanley (Andrew Fox Burden), and his two cousins Nora and Laurie (Andrea Gordon and Kate-Lynn Siemers). While Eugene breaks the fourth wall to serve as narrator -- literally announcing that, when he grows up, he intends to turn these events into a memoir -- he doesn't quite function as the main character. This is fundamentally an ensemble, with each character getting their moment to shine and explore their complex problems.

And boy, does this family have a lot of problems, all of which converge over the course of one night, with the repercussions felt a week later. Stanley and Jack are hurting for money, with Stanley getting fired and Jack's employer going out of business. Nora, a student at a dance school, is offered a gig in the chorus line of a Broadway show, but her mother disapproves of her leaving school for this opportunity. Laurie has grown up being told she has a sickness that may not exist. Tensions between Kate and the widow Blanche bubble to the surface when Blanche sets up a date with Kate's neighbor. Meanwhile, Eugene has, let's say, taboo feelings toward his cousin Nora.

While the first act fairly well zips along, with most of the focus going to Eugene's comedic monologues and asides, the weight of all of these troubles comes down like a hammer in act two. This is a tough balancing act, and the humor sometimes feels misplaced, but Brighton Beach Memoirs would simply be too downbeat without this through line of comedy. Director John W. Olive does well with juggling these emotions, and with making the house really feel as precarious and crowded as it should be. The ensemble is fantastic -- particularly the younger actors, who hold their own against more seasoned performers. Whether you'll laugh a lot is unclear, but you will identify with Brighton Beach Memoirs, and I'd call that a success.

BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS, 8 p.m., Friday-Saturday through Sept. 30; Pay What You Can Thursdays, 8 p.m., Sept. 13 & 20; 2 p.m., Sunday, Lakewood Playhouse, 5729 Lakewood Towne Center Blvd. SW, $20-$26, 253.588.0042,

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