In 1983, after decades of writing such patented laugh- (and cash-) producing machines as The Odd Couple, The Sunshine Boys, Barefoot in the Park and Plaza Suite, Neil Simon decided to take a stab at sincerity. In what is known as his "BB" trilogy, Simon looked to his past and, over the next three years, wrote the autobiographical Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound, collectively the story of Eugene Jerome and his rocky path from late adolescence to young adulthood. Interestingly, the "new" Simon finally won the Pulitzer in 1991, for Lost in Yonkers -- not part of the "BB" canon, but certainly informed by it.
Perhaps the most amazing thing is that somehow, and I can't even imagine the statistical improbability of this, I've never seen Brighton Beach Memoirs. Over the years I've sat through Biloxis and Broadways galore, but the first installment has always managed to slip by me. So let's give a big hand to Stage 62 for shoring up this shameful hole in my otherwise exemplary Neil Simon record -- especially with such a skillful and all-around enjoyable production.
It's 1937, and we're in the Brooklyn home of Eugene Jerome and his family: mother, father and brother, plus an aunt and her two daughters. Plays being what they are, everybody's got a wealth of emotional secrets and scars which, for the next two hours, Simon will unwrap for the audience. Mostly the drama revolves around how these well-meaning but emotionally stunted people all, without ever meaning to, hurt each other. There's a great deal of love in the clan but, of course, it would take an act of Congress for anybody to admit it.
Brighton Beach is also about something else -- namely, that Neil Simon is one horny little bastard. It's fitting, perhaps, since Eugene and his brother are arriving at an age when sex becomes the organizing principal for young men. But be warned that if you're expecting your standard Simon play, the many jokes about masturbation might come as a surprise.
Stage 62 director Aviva Ravel deserves plaudits for overseeing such a sturdy production. Though the pace and urgency may slip now and again, Ravel does a wonderful job putting Simon's words and intent front and center. She's also exceptional at drawing heartfelt performances from her cast.
Alec Silberblatt plays Jerome with the exact blend of far-too-smart adolescent and far-too-immature young man, and he gets a lot of laughs and dramatic tension juggling the two. Shawn Summers is quite moving as the older brother, suffering under the burden of far too much responsibility foisted on him far too soon. Becca Nadler and Jessica Apitsch are sweet and fun as the distracting cousins, and Ed Gergerich nicely plays the overextended and always well-meaning father. And in a key scene as warring sisters, Melissa Dreyer and Sally Denmead create some dramatic sparks of their own.
Brighton Beach Memoirs continues through May 27. Andrew Carnegie Free Library Music Hall, 200 Beechwood Ave., Carnegie. 412-429-6262.