Advice is free. If it doesn’t fit you can always return it. And just like any shopping endeavor, good advice is often hard to find. Prince George’s Little Theatre is a great place to go looking for it in their production of Brighton Beach Memoirs, the first of three shows in the 55th season. A poignantly witty, well received , emotionally touching comedy, the family featured in the Neil Simon classic puts the ‘fun’ in dysfunctional. Directed by Ken Kienas, this charming coming of age tale focuses on one family struggling through every day life at Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, NY right in the middle of 1937. Anyone who has a family will love this show; the message within a true ray of summer sun even in the dreariest of times.
Set Designer Cindy Bentley crafts the image of a perfect Brooklyn interior upon the stage. The wooden upright flats are intricately detailed with coats of paint that flawlessly mimic wallpaper of the time, an inspirational addition to the design, compliments of designer Roy Peterson. Bentley divides the stage into two tiers, easily creating a believable second storey to the Jerome household where both bedrooms that belong to the children are easily viewable but distinctly separate. Bentley’s overall concept of spatial alignment for the set makes movement among the characters more fluid and really gives them a sense of placement and belonging for various scenes in the performance.
Director Ken Kienas does wonders with capturing the Brooklyn accent among his actors throughout the production. With the exception of Kate and Nora, the accents are consistent, particularly with Stan and Eugene. This uniformity of sound authenticates the era and location of the production, especially when it comes to Stan’s character and his tall tales and big troubles. Kienas does have a decent pacing to the show, moments flow quickly from one to the next with well placed beats that are executed cleanly. This does not, however, prevent the show from being a Neil Simon show and thus having a long first act.
The performances across the board in the production are solid; emotionally grounded in little nuances that makes each of the characters stand out. For young Laurie (Annalie Ellis) it’s her ability to sit quietly like a prop in a scene. Ellis delivers one or two lines here and there but they are punctuated with that wordy, bookwormish undertone that invites the audience to take a closer look at the girl with heart flutters. Nora (Sophia Speciale) is of a similar nature, though her character choices are much bolder, bubblier, and far more defiant when it comes to her mother, Blanche.
Speciale and Ellis aren’t the only set of sisters in the house; Kate (Nora Zanger) and Blanche (Jill Goodrich) are the mother-sisters in the Jerome family, and their relationship at first seems peaceful. Late in act II both Zanger and Goodrich burst their emotional dams and the flood waters of feelings start flowing. While Zanger’s accent isn’t perfect, her execution of motherly guilt and comic timing is impeccable. When telling off Eugene there’s something formulaically brilliant about the way she jumps all over his case being a stereotypical nattering mother.
Goodrich, as the dependent sister, develops a much more worrisome and meek character but her moments of emotional strength appear with exponential strength when facing off against her character’s sister and daughter respectively. The striking revelations that her character experiences brings honest meaning to the scenes she shares with both Speciale and Zanger; handling them each with composed dignity.
The patriarch of the household, Jack (Steve Feder), is a calming force among all the women and children in his house. Loaded with advice, and opinions that are highly esteemed, Feder’s character is a balancing point of wisdom for the play. His accent is mild but fitting for the gentle personality of his character, and when moments of excitability do befall him he finds a way to subdue them in such a manner that makes them intriguing.
Appearing as the epitome of Brooklyn sound in 1937 is the eldest son Stanley (Mike Culhane.) There is something animated about his overall stage presence; a caricature of a 1930’s working youth pulled right out of an old movie and enjoyed upon the stage. Culhane captures the essence of the era, of his character’s trials and tribulations, as well as the family’s problems as a whole all through a few simple gestures, postures, and vocal adjustments. Giving a compelling and engaging performance, Culhane’s emotional eruption in act II is harrowing and heartfelt. The camaraderie he develops with Eugene (Casey Baum) is brotherly to an extreme; really grounding their relationship in the stereotype of mentoring older brother and eagerly curious, albeit annoying, kid brother.
Casey Baum, as the author of the play’s namesake, gives a sensational scene-stealing performance in this production. His comic timing is unflappable; little moments that are addressed as asides to the audience become rip-roaring hilarious zingers. His presence of mind in making his character realistic is impressive for an actor of his young age. Baum approaches the character with sharpened wit and an eager sense of telling this story, even the more melancholic bits. It becomes as much a tale about his growing into puberty as it does a true story about family struggling through hard times with his approach to narration. Baum is an energetic delight; a true gift to the production in this role.
Bring the family, all 37 if you can, you never know what you might discover in this show that suits your own familial dysfunctions or what could be learned from a fabulously funny evening out at the theatre.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 40 minutes with one intermission
Brighton Beach Memoirs plays through September 13, 2014 at Prince George’s Little Theatre at the Bowie Playhouse— 16500 White Marsh Park Drive in Bowie, MD. For tickets call the box office at 301-937-7458 or purchase them online.