Review: Brighton Beach Memoirs – a sophisticated balance of humour and drama

Metro Theatre opens its 2010/2011 season with a warm and charming Brighton Beach Memoirs led by some great performances from the younger members of this cast.

The first of Neil Simon’s autobiographical trilogy, Brighton Beach Memoirs begins the chronicles of the Jerome family as seen through the eyes of 15 year-old Eugene, set against the backdrop of the depression and a looming second world war.  More concerned with baseball and more recently girls, life around Eugene is anything but easy and uncomplicated.  His father can barely keep a roof over their heads, the near-blind aunt and her two children add to an already over-crowded household and a mother desperately tries to keep everything together.

Leading the way in a trio of great performances from the younger members of this cast is Cormac O’Dwyer as Eugene.  Simon’s young alter-ego, O’Dwyer is called upon here to not only be part of the family dynamic but also narrator and easily moves between his two roles with enthusiasm, emotional depth and a great sense of comedic timing.  In the program O’Dwyer says he “hopes to be a professional actor when he grows up”.  Based on this performance alone I have no doubt.

Next in this trio of fine performances is Josh Zumstien as Eugene’s older brother Stanley.  Zumstien is especially believable in his one-on-one exchanges with Eugene, leaving us with little doubt these two are indeed related.  Zumstien and O’Dwyer work well off each other for some of the funniest and touching moments of the night including a hilarious scene about “whacking off”.

Completing the trio is Elizabeth Holliday as Laurie the youngest of Eugene’s cousins protected by her mother because of her supposed heart condition, who gives us just the right amount of spoiled-brat without becoming petulant.  Holliday makes the most of her thinly drawn character who is left on stage a great deal of the time simply reading a book.

Brighton Beach Memoirs
Cormac O’Dwyer as Eugene Jerome and Josh Zumstien as Stanley Jerome. Photo by Brian Campbell.

Among the adults, Gina Raye Young gives us a wonderfully nuanced performance as the Jewish matriarch struggling to keep her family together.  Young provides such intensity to her character that you simultaneously feel the worry and hope that permeates through her.  Each time she came out of the kitchen I felt the underlying weariness of her character, so desperate to make life bearable for her and her family.

While  O’Dwyer, Zumstien, Holliday and Young provide us with the strongest performances of the evening, the remainder of the cast (Emanuel Fappas, Melanie Preston, Paige Dean) work hard to bring the rest of the Jerome clan and its extended family to life.

Once again the set design at Metro, led by set designer Tracy-Lynn Chernaske, is top notch, with a two-level Brooklyn home with a perfectly claustrophobic feel.  I had only wished that the set had been moved closer to the audience to immerse us more into the family’s home and lives.  Don Briard’s lighting design works although at times the transitions between Eugene’s narration and the real life action were not as crisp as they could have been.  Costume designer Kim Co does a good job capturing the depression era clothes especially in both the drabness and shabby sheik of the women and the details of Eugene’s not-quite-a-man clothing.

Director Rita Price has captured a sophisticated balance of humour and drama that I have not seen on the Metro Theatre stage before.  This is a winning production that will leave you fully satisfied in a way liver and cabbage never could.

4 out of 5 Stars Brighton Beach Memoirs
Metro Theatre, 1370 SW Marine Drive, Vancouver
Now through 25 September 2010

Tickets are $17-$20 available by calling 604-266-7191 or at the door.

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