When Neil Simon passed away August 26, the American theater and screen world lost an icon. He was a prolific writer, an astute observer of the American condition, and a great storyteller with an eye for what was real, and to make it entertaining. As such, his works were true-to-life with an actual plot, rather than explosions and pratfalls. For some of us, that made him a breath of fresh air. Simon’s most personal work was the trilogy of stories that began with Brighton Beach Memoirs and continued through Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound.
Written over the span of just three years (1983-86) they told the tale of a family growing up and trying to get by the best they could under difficult circumstances. Gentle humor, engaging sentimentality and a solid theme of loyalty and doing the right thing. That was Neil Simon’s signature, and it is only appropriate that Lakewood Playhouse opens its 80th year with “Brighton Beach Memoirs.” By the time Neil Simon wrote it, he had found his way as a playwright. Lakewood Playhouse enters its ninth decade as a theater that, in recent years, has surely found its way, as well. The Opening Night crowd was given a gift (besides cake and apple cider). Lakewood Playhouse gave the gift of a really fine show to its loyal patrons. They responded with thunderous applause. Happy birthday, Lakewood Playhouse. It looks like another great year is afoot!
“Brighton Beach Memoirs” is almost two plays in one over the course of three hours. The first half is lighter in tone and comedic in nature. The second half is the more dramatic of the two acts and the one that provides these actors with their chance to shine as performers with depth. Every actor on stage took advantage of their chance in the spotlight.
Mr. Simon’s alter-ego in “Brighton Beach Memoirs” is 15-year-old Eugene Morris Jerome. He’s a normal mid-teen boy in that he has recently discovered the soft parts of girls, and can’t stop thinking about them. The fact that he lives with his comely female cousin does nothing for his sanity. The role of Eugene is key to the success of the show and Drew Bates hits every note with a skill beyond his years. Mr. Bates is a mere junior in high school. Can he handle the lead in a Neil Simon play? Indeed, he can. This is is his Lakewood Playhouse debut. We can only hope to see more from him.
Pamela Roza is another newcomer to this stage, having recently come to the Puget Sound from Florida. She recently played Eugene and his brother Stanley’s’ mother Kate (her role in this show) in The Sunshine State at Broward Stage Door Theatre. Her familiarity with the role has given her a comfort with it that is palpable. Kate is doing what mothers everywhere have done down through history. She is trying to guide her family through tough times while keeping her doubts and fears to herself…until she pops. As a guide, Pamela Roza is really good! When she pops, Pamela Roza is great! She is another welcome addition to this theater’s stable of performers.
Brynne Garman is a South Sound vet, familiar with this stage. Local theatergoers may well remember her from “Doubt,” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” both fine performances for LPH. She plays Blanche in this show and her acting talent truly shines in how it contrasts with her previous, seething, work here. Blanche is a widow, promising to repay her sister and brother-in-law for hosting her and her family when she has no education, no job, and no prospects with which to begin. Eventually, her promises become empty, serving only to hide the fact that she is afraid of life, deferring for decisions she should make, terrified that someone, anyone, will be mad at her. Ms. Garman has never failed to put forth a good performance and she isn’t going to start in this production. She’s excellent.
W. Scott Pinkston plays the family patriarch, Jack. Overworked and underappreciated, Jack is in many ways, the show’s anchor. He wants peace and a chance to read his paper. Instead, he’s surrounded by family chaos and the paper stays unread. Oy vey, such a home he has. Scott Pinkston is fine in the first act, but it is in Act Two that his star shines the brightest. He’s not sure how to raise teenagers (who among us is?), but his heart is as big as it is weakened from too many hours of wage-earning. But, it is family that matters most to Jack and he will put his shoulder to the wheel to save his family in Brooklyn and any potential refugees who come from Poland. Scott Pinkston has never been better than he is in this role. It is as simple as that.
The comely cousin for whom Eugene has lust in his heart and loins is Nora, played by Andrea Gordon. She’s Blanche’s daughter and wants desperately to follow her dreams, embodied in a vague promise from an erstwhile “producer” to put her on the Broadway stage. Should Nora roll the dice and try to be a star, or should she stay in school and grow up a bit before striking out on a possible stage career? It is the question that allows so much of this cast to show their finest work in response. Ms. Gordon’s angst shows in the crease in her forehead and the way she tosses her hair and stalks upstairs. She is an up and comer to be watched.
Eugene has a love/hate relationship with his older brother, Stanley. What’s new in that? Older brothers can be autocratic and overbearing, but they are also the only example that little brothers have in order to grow up. Eugene is secretly afraid that he will never see a naked woman in the flesh (For those who were never 15-year-old males, that’s a real thing boys worry about.), and that he may have to live vicariously through Stanley.
The relationship between Drew Bates’ Eugene and Andrew Fox Burden’s Stanley may be the best part of this fine show. They could be brothers, though they might kill each other in the process. As Stanley progresses through this show, he shows vulnerability. That may well be why he only gets better as the show goes on. His major script conflict is in Act Two and Mr. Burden handles his business skillfully. His late-play conversation with his father is one of this show’s highlights.
Kate-Lynn Siemers plays Laurie, Nora’s little sister who is beleaguered with asthma. Oh, she has asthma but is she REALLY sick or milking it for all she’s worth? Ms. Siemers plays the part skillfully and leaves the audience in doubt about her real motivation. It isn’t a big part, but it is a part loaded with little sister jealousy and treachery, all at the same time. She does a good job and we hope to see her in bigger parts in the future.
“Brighton Beach Memoirs” is directed by veteran helmsman John Olive. His touch is light when the actors need room to breathe and heavier when they need to be brought to heel. Mr. Olive’s skillful leadership helps bring out the best in a really good show.
Lakewood Playhouse is off and running on its next 80 years. Its a cultural touchstone in a city that has been a city for less than half of those 80 years. Lakewood itself is still finding its way. Its Playhouse, though, is a mature citizen that is only getting grander and more lovely with the passage of time. The lighting is improved, the bathrooms are redone and the cast pictures are sharp and clear in the program! Lovers of theater need to see “Brighton Beach Memoirs” for its own sake. They also need to see it because a successful run will bring us the rest of the trilogy. Because, as veteran newsman Paul Harvey said, fans of Lakewood Playhouse deserve to see “the rest of the story.”
“Brighton Beach Memoirs,” by Neil Simon, Lakewood Playhouse, 5729 Lakewood Towne Center Blvd, SW. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun. 2 pm through Sept. 30. Tickets: tix4.centerstageticketing.com/sites/lakewood_washington/showdates.php?s_id=144. Info: lakewoodplayhouse.org/, or 253-588-0042.