From Pitching to First Base: ‘Brighton Beach Memoirs’

Poster for Domino Theatre's production of 'Brighton Beach Memories'. The title, company, playwright, and director are noted. A baseball sits on grass.

It’s family drama and first crushes, with a side of baseball. Directed by Penny Nash and staged by Domino Theatre, Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs (1982) is a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age comedy. It centres around the Jerome family through the perspective of the youngest son, fifteen year-old Eugene Morris Jerome (William Mitchell). Living in Brooklyn, the Jewish-Polish immigrant family experience personal hardships and conflict under the threat of impending war. Meanwhile, Eugene is fascinated by baseball and increasingly, an attraction to girls. The first act takes place over the course of an evening in September 1937, while the second consists of an evening one week later. In addition to participating in action and dialogue with the other characters, Eugene also acts as the play’s narrator, describing and summarizing events in brief monologues. This narration brings about the neat autobiographical feel of the play, as Eugene reflects on his love of writing and records his family’s struggles.

Although renowned for such classics as Barefoot in the Park (1963) and The Odd Couple (1965), Simon’s writing is not at his best here. Brighton Beach Memoirs is the first in a series of three plays following the character of Eugene Jerome (the subsequent plays being Biloxi Blues (1984) and Broadway Bound (1986), respectively), and based on Simon’s own experiences. While starting off strong and setting up a variety of conflicts and confusion within the Jerome family, channeled through Eugene’s perspective, the second act feels much shorter than the first, wrapping things up a little too neatly and somewhat abruptly at the end. It’s an interesting choice to stage a comparatively lesser-known (though still very famous) example of Simon’s work, especially one that acts as part of a trilogy. However, as a semi-autobiographical play, the work does offer an intriguing perspective on coming-of-age as a writer, especially given Eugene’s focus on documenting the household’s events.  

While not necessarily the most universally admired play from Simon, the actors here give solid performances all around, with a few standouts. Michael Capon makes an excellent, though troubled, father figure as Jack Jerome, whose role is often to advise and lead the family through their struggles. Sara Beck brings a lot of raw emotion to her portrayal of mother Kate Jerome, and there are several particularly moving moments between Kate and her sister Blanche, played by Kate Barker. The small ensemble cast brings great energy to the production, and shows a distinct rapport and closeness between the family members that is effective—their dynamic as a family unit feels very genuine and believable. 

Snappy dialogue is a Simon-esque trademark, as is quick delivery and movement to heighten the comedic effect. This production moves at a toned down, even pace, which helps keep the different layers of conflict clear, but there is less physicality and some humour and energy are lost. The pacing could move at a more frenetic tempo to convey the whirlwind of chaos that the family is experiencing. Actors are donning Brooklyn accents for their roles—a difficult feat that is hard to get accurate without extensive training to implement effectively. However, the performances are strong and reliable without being too encumbered by achieving the precise dialect. Despite these minor foibles, the actors bring a lot of heart and connection to the members of the Jerome family. 

An immediate and substantial standout in the production is a fantastic and clever set, to the credit of Set Designer Grant Buckler. The set consists of the Jerome house, with two levels—one for the upstairs bedrooms, and one for the main floor complete with living and dining areas, as well as some outdoor space (including functional front and back doors). The play involves difficult staging to show action simultaneously in several rooms on different levels. This ingenious design aptly allows the action to flow seamlessly, as well as creating a warm domestic environment to centre around the family. For example, the teenage children are often in the upper bedrooms while the main action of the scene concerns the adults down below. Different groups of family members also have conversations with each other inside and outside the house simultaneously. The lighting is very effective in indicating which room or conversation is the focus in a given moment (lighting design by David L. Smith).  

Overall, Domino Theatre’s production of Brighton Beach Memoirs offers a solid snapshot of the Jerome family with great heart. While it may not be the most notable introduction to Simon’s work, it provides an example of a family drama with some comedic lightness, and general exploration of a Jewish immigrant family’s struggles in late-1930s Brooklyn from a teenager’s perspective.

‘Brighton Beach Memoirs’, directed by Penny Nash, runs at Domino Theatre until June 22, 2024. More information can be found here and tickets are available here.