Citadel's heartwarming 'Brighton Beach Memoirs' an ideal antidote to a pandemic
"Brighton Beach Memoirs" -- ★ ★ ★
"Brighton Beach Memoirs" is the theatrical equivalent of a mug of cocoa on a chilly day: warm and comforting with a sweetness that makes for a treat that's tasty but not treacly.
To that end, Neil Simon's autobiographical coming-of-age comedy may be the kind of familiar beverage patrons crave as theater companies resume in-person performances following the 18-month hiatus forced by the COVID-19 pandemic. That certainly seemed true of Citadel Theatre's agreeable revival of this pleasant 1983 play starring high school student Siah Berlatsky as Eugene Jerome, a 15-year-old obsessed with baseball and fixated on his comely teenage cousin who's a year older than him.
The first in Simon's celebrated Eugene trilogy (which also includes "Biloxi Blues" and "Broadway Bound"), "Brighton Beach Memoirs" is a gently humorous play brimming with affection and Simon's trademark one-liners.
The action unfolds in a 1937 working-class Brooklyn neighborhood where Eugene (the endearing Berlatsky, a student at the Chicago High School for the Arts), resides with his parents Jack (Ron Quade) and Kate (Monica Castle), 18-year-old brother Stanley (Danny Mulae), Kate's widowed sister Blanche (Abby Lee) and her daughters: 13-year-old Laurie (Shaya Harris) and 16-year-old Nora (Juliana Liscio).
Everyone in this extended, financially strapped family grapples with something. Concerned over rumors of war in Europe, the overworked Jack worries about relatives overseas. Resolute Kate, the glue holding the family together, frets about her children and nieces and her sister Blanche who's as diffident as Kate is sure. Stanley struggles over taking a principled stand that may cost him his job while budding dancer Nora considers quitting school to pursue a career on Broadway. Lastly, young Laurie has a heart flutter that relieves her from household chores and results in coddling from the family's adult members and earns more than a little resentment from Eugene.
In fact, unexpressed (for the most part) resentment underscores what is essentially a celebration of family: the love and support its members provide, the failings its members tolerate and the forgiveness they offer. Director Scott Phelps' able cast makes apparent the affection these folks have for each other, but beneath that love lies hurt: a widow's enduring grief and her uncertainty of how to raise two young girls who miss their departed dad; an earnest son anguished over disappointing his parents; an older sister forced into a caretaker role at an early age, who has long begrudged the carefree youth her younger sister enjoyed.
Phelps' cast earns kudos not just for landing laughs in all the right places, but for striking the right emotional notes, particularly in the scenes between Mulae's earnest Stanley and Berlatsky's garrulous Eugene, which reflect genuine warmth. That's also true of the affecting scene late in the second act between Castle's Kate and Lee's self-doubting Blanche who resolves at last to claim her place as the head of her family.
When it comes to humor, the Jerome family peccadillos provide plenty of fodder. But it's those moments of intimacy, understanding and acceptance that make this heartfelt comedy an ideal comfort during chilly times.
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Location: Citadel Theatre, Lake Forest High School West Campus, 300 S. Waukegan Road, Lake Forest, (847) 735-8554, citadeltheatre.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday through Oct 17; also 1 p.m. Sept. 29 and Oct. 13
Tickets: $40, $45
Running time: Two hours, 35 minutes, including intermission
Parking: In the lot adjacent to the theater
Rating: For teens and older, includes sexual references
COVID-19 precautions: Patrons must wear masks except when eating or drinking