Because there is no curtain on the thrust stage at the Loretto-Hilton Center, the moment you enter the auditorium for the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis staging of Neil Simon's 1983 family play Brighton Beach Memoirs, you are thrust into the modest Brooklyn home of fifteen-year-old Eugene Morris Jerome. The much put-upon Eugene (everything that goes wrong in that house gets blamed on him) lives near the ocean with his parents, his older brother, an aunt and two cousins. The set, meticulously designed by Michael Ganio and sensitively lit by Phil Monat, lovingly evokes the past. In the distance beyond the Jerome home, we can even see the Empire State Building rising in Manhattan, an isle that, to Eugene's family, must seem as remote as Oz.
The semi-autobiographical plot plays out during a week in September 1937. The Depression still grips America, and World War II is approaching. The beleaguered Jerome family is beset by frustrations, resentments, unemployment, illness — which might not sound like an equation for a lot of laughs. But Simon has imposed an unusual structure on Brighton Beach. Eugene, the evening's sex-obsessed narrator, is the only character who is intentionally funny. The other six are too busy living their lives to think about comedy. But because this harried Jewish family was created by Neil Simon, despite their many travails it's impossible for them to not be at least intermittently amusing.
Act One builds effectively to a family dinner at which nearly every member of the family arrives at the table with a serious want — everyone, that is, but Eugene, whose only goal is to try to avoid having to eat liver and cabbage. But in Act Two (one week later), the story compartmentalizes into a series of two-character confrontations. The first one, between Eugene and his older brother Stanley, strikes like an unexpected thunderclap. But as these crises continue to detonate, a sense of manipulation sets in, as if the clashes are occurring because Simon thinks it's time for them to occur.
This is where the production must step in to smooth out an arbitrariness that calls attention to itself. As directed by Steven Woolf, the Rep staging is imbued with many persuasive performances. In the role of Kate, the hardened mother who keeps the family running despite all adversities (except those of her own making), Lori Wilner is so in tune with the play's rhythms, it's as if she's inhabiting the role rather than acting it. As her weary husband Jack, Adam Heller is a model of carefully calibrated understatement. Heller's lovely work is matched by Michael Curran- Dorsano, who portrays Stanley, the elder son. In a touching scene between father and son, when Pop puts his hands into his pants pockets, Stanley does too, almost without being aware that he's doing it. A director's touch? An actor's idea? We don't know, but such moments provide the building blocks for a resonant evening.
In the pivotal role of Eugene, Ryan DeLuca gets the arc of the role right. But on opening night, there was a sense that he had not yet settled into the part. For lack of a more precise phrase, the "adorability factor" had not yet kicked in. Yes, Simon's lines are amusing, but the long-suffering Eugene must captivate and conquer his audience between the lines. Perhaps DeLuca should press a little less and beguile a little more.
Nevertheless, by evening's end, the Rep has delivered a double dip of nostalgia. Not only does the story play out in the 1930s, but Brighton Beach Memoirs recalls that fecund theatergoing era in the 1960s, '70s and '80s when the almost annual announcement of a new Neil Simon comedy generated the heady promise of expertise, craft and two hours of laughter. Comedy, alas, is now an endangered species in the Broadway theater. This week, for instance, of 22 shows currently running on the Great White Way, only one (an import from London) is a comedy. Neil Simon, and the time in which he reigned, is much missed.