PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Brighton Beach Memoirs — The Birds and the B's

By Harry Haun
26 Oct 2009

Playwright Neil Simon, director David Cromer; guests James Lipton, Joan Rivers and Mayor Michael Bloomberg
Playwright Neil Simon, director David Cromer; guests James Lipton, Joan Rivers and Mayor Michael Bloomberg
Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Meet the first-nighters at the Broadway opening of Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs.


From Aisle Seat F-114 at The Nederlander on Oct. 25, Neil Simon again saw his youth snap, crackle and pop in front of his eyes in a Broadway revival of his heavily fictionalized autobiographical play of ‘83, Brighton Beach Memoirs.

There’s more B.B. to come: Broadway Bound, Chapter Three in his stage autobiographies, begins at the same theatre Nov. 18 and starts spinning in rep with the first, utilizing the same set, the same Playbill and four of the same actors. Biloxi Blues, the middle installment covering his barracks days, will sit it out. This is family fodder, and only immediate members are allowed to participate.

At the curtain call, the seasoned first-nighters rose as one for the cast of seven, and they, in turn, directed the applause to the mild-mannered man in F-114. The 82-year-old playwright has spent his life judging his hits and misses on the laughter of his audience, and he was smiling. That smile widened as the evening wore on when he learned that his beloved New York Yankees were, simultaneously, Series-bound.

As befitted the newly re-crowned King of Broadway Comedy, the after-party (here aptly billed an "Opening Night Celebration") was a splashy affair at Tavern on the Green, which has served as the site of so many Broadway wing-ding wind-downs.

Simon, with his Sugar (Elaine Joyce) on his arm, skipped the press-room alcove early on in the hall of mirrors—age has some privileges--and made his way through the firefly lighting to the center of the main banquet room, where he remained happily unflappable and accessible to a constant stream of glad-handers, including his publicist for 30 years (and kidney doner), Bill Evans.

Producer Emanuel Azenberg, who has had his finger in every Simon pie since The Sunshine Boys back in 1972, suggested this repackaging of two-storied, twice-told tales and was one of the moneybags who made it happen. Others: Ira Pittelman, Max Cooper, Jeffrey A. Sine, Scott Delman, Ruth Hendel, Roy Furman, Ben Sprecher / Wendy Federman and Scott Landis. In the olden days of a better economy, Azenberg could have usually made it go with a single producing partner.

Ah, the economy—that’s the rub. Brighton Beach Memoirs is set in what is now sardonically referred to as "the first Depression"—1937—and viewing the frayed financial threat by which the Jerome family clings perilously has plenty of palm-sweating resonance for a contemporary audience that is similarly strapped.

"Yeah, I lucked into that," Simon said when it was noted that the current economy has brought out the very real drama that was always in his play, lurking under the laughs. "It’s bad times again. I started life in bad times, and here they are again."

Cued by the clouds of tough times, director David Cromer lets the drama naturally and quietly assert itself. Simon admitted the result seemed darker to him—"actually, literally darker, because he had the lights go down. At first, I had to fight it. I said, 'This is not how we did it before,' then I let it go and I don’t come around anymore. I come and see it, and I say, ‘Yeah, this is pretty good.’"

The director who won that point hails from Chicago and has made it to Broadway at last after three mighty Off-Broadway steps (Orson’s Shadow, Adding Machine: a Musical and Our Town). "It was different intellectually," confessed Cromer about the big move uptown. "It’s just as nerve-wracking as everything else. You’re just as nervous and helpless as you are on any show. It’s the same set of feelings. Once in a while, I’d say, 'Wow! This is a little more national.' I have to keep reminding myself that it was this iconic thing that is Broadway."

But, in the next breath, he admitted he had a lot of people making it easier for him. "I’ve been very well treated by the producers and by the company in general, in terms of there not being people glowering at me saying, 'You’re going to cost a lot of money if you screw this up.' Instead, people were saying, 'Okay, what do we want to do? What do we want to do next?' It has been pretty luxurious, actually."

Specifically, what’s next on Cromer’s agenda is, of course, getting Broadway Bound up and running and then spinning in rep. "Then, I’m doing a play at Lincoln Center called When the Rain Stops Falling by Andrew Bovell, who wrote Speaking in Tongues and the screenplay for 'Strictly Ballroom.' We’re in the middle of casting it right now. It’s about fathers and sons."

Following that, in the fall of 2010, on Broadway will be a revival of William Inge’s Picnic. When you factor in the Simon double-bill and Our Town, that’s quite a run of family plays. "But that’s all there is," Cromer insisted. "There are only two kinds of plays—home plays and work plays. We spend our days in very small groups of people we’re either forced into circumstances with or choose to be in circumstances with—either our families who we’re both forced and choose, or our workplace we’re forced into, or our friends whom we choose. Our friends are the family we choose. Almost any play will be about intimate relationships like that."

For Simon, half the victory was filling the Jerome household with precisely the right people: "Casting is so important. It’s like going in for an operation. If the doctor moves the knife the wrong place, you’re dead. That’s how you feel when you’re saying, 'Let’s take this person,' because you can be dead in seconds. We were lucky.

“That kid came in—the young boy. We had about 10 kids coming in. We say, 'Thank you.' 'Thank you.' Then, this kid comes in and starts to read, and I started to laugh, and everybody starts to move closer and say, 'Yeah, this kid is good.' He’s terrific."

The kid is 19-passing-for-14-year-old Noah Robbins, who has the awesome job of 1) playing The Boy Simon, here called Eugene Morris Jerome, and 2) following Matthew Broderick’s star-making, Tony-winning performance of 1983. No problem. He skates through it like Sonja Henie-in-heat and lands with a triple lutz.

"Matthew’s are big shoes to fill, but, luckily, I don’t feel I don’t have to fill any shoes because it’s a different production, a different director, a different everything," he said. "I don’t feel like I have to do what he did. That takes a lot of pressure off of me."

The part of Eugene is a dream of a stepping stone for any Broadway-debuting young actor. He is narrator and tour-guide for a crowded Brooklyn household that includes two brothers, two sisters, two mothers who are sisters and one father. He fills in blanks and comments on action, cracking the fourth wall constantly—wisecracking it, really—flinging zingers right at the audience. "I love it," Robbins beamed blissfully. "I think every actor wants to break the fourth wall. They’re just not allowed to. I get to do what most actors wish they could do, which is just look at the audience and talk to the audience—get their responses and get their laughs. I just love that.

"I came in, and I wanted to be funny, and the most wonderful thing that David did was tell me, 'If you think that way, you won’t be funny. What you have to do is think that this is serious stuff. Only if you think of it as serious will it be funny.' He brought me into that naturalistic world, and it was so helpful for me because I’d have just gone up there and done the Charleston, otherwise. He brought me to that next level."

His co-stars took him higher. "I’m lucky to work with them. They’ve made me much better. They forced me to rise to—if not their level, somewhere around their level."

In Broadway Bound, Robbins grows up into Josh Grisetti, who takes over the Eugene role and runs with it. (He won a recent Theatre World Award for Enter Laughing.) There is a resemblance, Grisetti noted. "I like to call him 'Mini-Me' when he has the wig on. Once the wig is off, he’s just Noah Robbins."

Grisetti spent his summer vacation trying out a new country-music tuner by Willard Beckham called Lucky Guy, directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle and co-starring Gary Beach and John Bolton. "It was great, it was fantastic. I think our producer was very happy. Goodspeed certainly was. It was a blast. I rarely get a chance to sing—really sing."

Eugene’s father (Dennis Boutsikaris), mother (Laurie Metcalf, the triple Emmy-winner from "Roseanne"), brother (Santino Fontana) and aunt (Jessica Hecht) make a return to the homefront for Broadway Bound.

"Eugene’s girl cousins have grown up and gone," Grisetti explained, "and there’s a new character, the grandfather. Allan Miller plays that part."

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Laurie Metcalf
Photo by Aubrey Reuben
There is never any question who rules both roosts—Metcalf with a tough love made of Bethlehem Steel, occasionally betraying telltale dents in the armor but for the most part holding the domestic nest together with scotch tape and bailing wire. For all its strident sound and fury, it is a performance of marvelously moving depth.

"I like that I get to be really strong and really funny," trumpeted the actress, "and I like that you think you know this character and her strengths—then, all of a sudden, you get to see some weaknesses, some flaws, and I think that comes as a surprise. That’s always such a rounded character, and it’s a real luxury to play."

Metcalf, a terrific team-player, is in Ensemble Heaven. "The whole group has been very collaborative. We’ve worked close, as a team, on these shows. I’m so anxious to get the other one up and running, too—because they’re really of a piece. I don’t think they’ve been done together before, but they truly complement each other. You saw this piece, and we’re going to skip ahead 12 years to see what happens to the marriage, to the kids, to the sisters. They all go into places you didn’t expect.

Already a man of many faces (from Mozart to Woody Allen, to give you an idea), Boutsikaris has a shot of flashing two new faces in this project. Meek along side the formidable Metcalf and mustachioed for the occasion, he looks like some old blacklisted salt-of-the-earth character actor along the lines of Roman Bohnen.

"I get an opportunity to age and grow even more than I’m already aging and growing," he said. "I think what Laurie and I have done is plant the seeds for a very good relationship in the first play—and, in the second play, we get divorced. So an audience will get the chance, if they want to, to see both plays in the same day and watch that whole relationship grow and crumble. That’s a great arc to work under.

"Last week we did three hours of Brighton Beach Memoirs, and then we rehearsed Broadway Bound, the things we needed to rehearse. So it gets a little confusing. We have to say, ‘What are we doing now?’ Really, honestly, we’ve thought about it as one big play—the storyline is one big play—but, on the other hand, it’s exhausting. I mean, we’re trying to do a lot of things. There’s a lot of balls in the air. It’s the same house, but the wallpaper gets changed because it’s 12 years later. I’m balding and gaining weight. I have a fat suit, although the costume designer says that I don’t really need one, that I’m getting girth on my own. Laurie will have lost weight because after the war she’s eating herself alive. She’s very unhappy.

"I like the whole play. It’s so well-written and so heartfelt, and I think it’s really the leap that Neil Simon took. When people were starting to write him off as just a guy who writes comedy, he reached down into his heart and wrote this terrific play."

As Eugene’s older (by three crucial years) brother Stanley, Fontana rushes about in an excited state from one crisis to another, with a rushed, breathy Tony Franciosa tremolo. "People keep saying that—this has happened several times," said the actor who has never heard of Anthony Franciosa, let alone seen him in breathless action.

Another thing that Fontana is told a lot is what an idealized Big Brother he makes. His patience with the endlessly sexually inquisitive Robbins counterpoints some of the best scenes in the play. "It’s a dreamy part, right?" he agrees. "When we started rehearsals, we were doing runthroughs, and I thought, 'I don’t know what I’ve gotten into.' I didn’t know if this was funny, I didn’t know if it was moving, I didn’t know what it was. I was just trying to stick to the script, stick to the story, stick to the character. So, to be told after the show, 'You moved me so much in that scene.' I don’t say anything. I’m thinking, 'What scene?' Because I really don’t know."

The very funny facts-of-life scenes, he said, "are completely different every night. It’s always two brothers talking about what happened to me last night. 'I woke up, and I was wet. What does that mean?' It starts there, but where it goes is dependent on what’s happening in that moment and what’s happening with that audience. Trust me. It’s completely different every night. Some night it’s like a rock concert. We have to wait. A couple of days ago, the show stopped in that scene. A pause in the middle of the scene. We had to wait. Actors dream of those things. And other times, it goes by quietly, and there’s a pause at the end of the scene. You just have no idea."

Hecht, a specialist at strong female roles, is a timid, tentative damsel in perpetual distress, Blanche, who cowers under sister Kate’s sonic air-blasts like everyone else.

"I just love how sorta unrealized she is, but she keeps going," remarked Hecht. "She knows she has to change who she is, and she just operates so instinctively toward doing that. It’s such a liberating character to play. You start in a place of complete hiding, and then, as it goes on, you are just able to move. The stories that Neil told us about the people he was writing about are so extraordinary. He talked about his aunt who took him in, but he was so paralyzed at that time by his parents' splitting up that it was hard. Some of it he doesn’t talk about. This play is really a compilation of a lot of different things. It really all takes place in The Bronx. In reality, he only went to Brighton Beach one summer and stayed with his aunt and loved it."

A happier fate awaits her character in Broadway Bound. "I’m very wealthy. I marry somebody who makes it big. I only come in in the first act, and I beg my family to take money from me, and they won’t. It’s complicated but very interesting."

As Hecht’s first-born daughter, the blossoming Nora who is innocently chasing a career in show business, Alexandra Socha had no problem identifying. "I love how wonderfully passionate she is about what she wants to do," she said. "It’s so easy for me to relate to. I was 16 years old and wanting to be on Broadway and living that dream when I was at home and in high school in New Hampshire."

Socha’s own luck along those lines could be called a Broadway debut if you followed that with an asterisk. "I’ve never had a Broadway opening before. It’s so exciting. I was in Spring Awakening, but I came in later on so I missed that one. I was in the show for a year and a half, but I never experienced something like this."

Grace Bee Morton plays her sickly little sister, the overly protective Laurie, the youngest person the premises, but the young actress suspects the character has a stronger edge. "She has a flutter in her heart, but I think she takes advantage of that a little," she said. "I like that’s she very comedic and a specific character."

The ever-reliable Jane Greenwood designed the Depression Age duds and did a deep bow in the direction of the director. "I found it very interesting working with David," she trilled. "He’s so specific and on-the-money. It was very enjoyable."

One couldn’t resist asking set designer John Lee Beatty if he was paid twice for the same set that is being used twice. He laughed at the question and responded, "I can’t remember if I was paid twice. I got paid something." And it’s not exactly the same set: "The wallpaper switches in the dining room and the girls’ room. We have revolving panels and interesting wiring problems, and the furniture switches and hidden slots where draperies come and go, things like that."

He too praised the collaborative Cromer. "David wanted to explore the reality of it, which surprised me at first. I sorta assumed it was going to be more like the original—a 'scrimy' memory play—but he wanted to go for the Depression and the reality of Brighton Beach, so I went out there a number of times and fairly well documented the set. Actually, a little bit of it is based on the color scheme--and some of the composition, oddly enough, is based on a little bit of Edward Hopper, but the rest of it is Grant Wood. I was looking at painters of the period, obviously.

"But David was interested in the juxtaposition of odd pieces of furniture. And I had a very interesting conversation with Neil Simon about making clear that this was a rented house, that they don’t own it. And it was not sort of your best rental, either. Going to Brighton Beach in that period didn’t mean that you were going up in the world so Neil had a lot of memories of family—his whole family being crammed into a beach house one summer where they all slept all through the house."

The massive wood dining room table, which Linda Lavin gave such a memorable Tony-winning waxing in Broadway Bound, pulled like a magnet at Joan Rivers, who replaced Lavin in that show. "Oh, God, you don’t know," said Rivers emotionally. "It was like seeing your old apartment. It really made me very nostalgic. Do you know how long ago that was? Eighteen years ago."

Mandy Ingber, who made her Broadway debut as little Laurie in the original Brighton Beach Memoirs, shut up her yoga-instruction shop in Los Angeles and made the sentimental journey here for the opening. "It’s like a reunion for me," she said. "I went up to Neil and said, ‘I was in the original company of Brighton Beach, and I still have an autographed picture from you that said on the picture, 'I hope that the show runs long enough so that one day you can play Aunt Blanche.' And then I said, 'And then you never read me for it, of course.'"

Architect Roger Morgan was among the opening-night crowd, happily drinking in his $10 million handiwork renovating the Nederlander. "Twelve years of Rent had taken its toll," he said. "The funny thing was they were going to do the renovation much earlier, but the Rent producers didn’t want it—they wanted it grungy," chimed in his wife, Ann Sachs, the actress (Frank Langella’s fang marks have almost completely disappeared from her neck).

Victoria Clark showed up with her folks—Lorraine, 85, and Jim, 90, neither of whom had no problem jetting in from Durham to catch her terrific gig with Ted Sperling at Feinstein’s at the Regency. Michael Feinstein dropped by for a quick chat at intermission. These days he’s plotting his December show there with David Hyde Pierce:. "The rough theme is the Gentiles meet the Jews at Christmastime. David is so waspy, and I’m culturally so Jewish, and we’re going to explore the differences between our two backgrounds—and the inherent humor therein. Hopefully."

Also in attendance: James Nederlander pere et fils, Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Betsy Aidem, Ragtime adapter Terrence McNally, A Little Night Music’s lead from London Alexander Hanson, Bye Bye Birdie’s Nolan Gerard Funk and Bill Irwin, actor and Orson’s Shadow author Austin Pendleton, Rent director Michael Greif, Sherry wordsmith James Lipton, Next to Normal’s Tony winner Tom Kitt, Finian’s Rainbow’s Kate Baldwin with frequent co-star and full-time hubby Graham Rowat, Charlayne Woodard (with a week to go on her show at Primary Stages, The Night Watcher, her first solo show in seven years), Lorraine Bracco, Tony winner Katie Finneran with main-squeeze Darren Goldstein, Carol Kane and Ramona Singer, one of “The Real New York Housewives” (but a bit different from Kate Jerome).