Depression-Era Humor Abounds in Hillsboro Artists’ Regional Theatre’s Production of Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs”

The play presents a thinly veiled version of Simon’s South Brooklyn youth.

Brighton Beach Memoirs (Courtesy of HART)

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” reads the opening of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. The latter sentiment is contradicted by the Jerome family of Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs, whose stressors are not unique, but relatable to many a big family with big problems.

Perhaps best known for The Odd Couple because of its many adaptations, Neil Simon penned numerous comedic pieces throughout his mid- to late 20th century career. Hillsboro Artists’ Regional Theatre is currently presenting Harrison Butler’s production of Brighton, Simon’s semi-autobiographical play (named after his original South Brooklyn neighborhood, historically a magnet for Eastern Europeans, including Ashkenazi Jews).

Though not as well known as The Odd Couple, Brighton Beach Memoirs is important to Simon’s history, and the history of Broadway itself. After the play’s New York City debut in 1983, its original venue, formerly the Alvin, was renamed the Neil Simon Theatre. During the three-year initial run, Matthew Broderick originated the lead role of Eugene Jerome, the fictionalized version of the teenaged Simon.

While the play is billed as a comedy, dramatic aspects add to the story’s timelessness. Like today, the Depression-era setting of September 1937 is rife with financial and health difficulties, and there are worries about America’s possible entrance into the war on the other side of the world.

Patriarch Jack (Mik Sander) struggles with two taxing jobs and high blood pressure; Eugene’s brother Stanley (Seth Miller) may lose his job after a humiliating incident; asthmatic widow Aunt Blanche (Kira Smolev) worries that she and her daughters are a burden, despite her sister Kate (Erin Bickler) insisting otherwise. Jack also fears for his relatives in Poland as Hitler threatens to invade (while Kate and Blanche’s family fled pogroms in Russia).

The Jerome family’s Judaism is essential to their character. One lesson they all have to learn is how much they must rely on each other in times of need, in keeping with the Jewish principle of tikkun olam (“healing the world”).

Cutting the tension is a hysterical helping of humor. Eugene chafes when his mother Kate constantly barks orders, and he describes liver and cabbage in biohazardous terms. He also inappropriately lusts after his cousin Nora (Anika Johnson) in part due to his lack of sexual education, which Stanley reluctantly remedies. Comedy gold ensues when Stanley tells Eugene that everyone masturbates, and Eugene asks if even President Roosevelt whacks off too.

Next up at HART, from this production’s assistant director April Aasheim, will be another family dramedy, And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little by Paul Zindel. Brighton Beach Memoirs, meanwhile, will play at HART till March 3. Tickets are available here.

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