It is coincidental that Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs” opened at Lakewood Playhouse two weeks after the playwright’s death, which adds an extra touch of poignancy to this realistic comic-drama, the first in a trio of autobiographical plays by Simon.
Ably directed by John Olive, Lakewood Playhouse’s first artistic director, the striking thing about “Brighton Beach Memoirs” is how down-to-earth and believable it is. Yes, it is peppered with Simon’s celebrated wit, but much more than that, it is relatable to everyone.
Fifteen-year-old Eugene (Drew Bates), clearly a Simon avatar, knows he’s going to be a writer when he grows up. But before he can he has to do two things: play for the New York Yankees and see a naked woman.
Every character in the play is complex and multi-layered, and they clearly love one another even as they struggle and bicker. The actors display a grasp of their characters as real people in family situations.
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The comic highlights are when Eugene asks big brother Stanley (Andrew Fox Burden) to explain all about puberty and what girls look like without their clothes — and what about that dream he had last night.
As funny as Eugene’s coming-of-age scenes are, the clash between sisters Blanche (Brynne Garman) and Kate (Pamela Roza) are equally intense. One of the most satisfying scenes in the play is when Kate finally allows herself to confront her sister with resentments stretching back to childhood.
And we admire and empathize with the father, Jack (W. Scott Pinkston), as he tries his hardest to be the glue that holds this volatile family together despite his own problems.
It is a wonderful story masterfully performed, with the largest and most elaborate set ever erected at the 80-year-old Lakewood Playhouse (designed by Olive).
Bates is a student at Auburn Riverside High School. For such a young man, he plays his part with the confidence and ability of a seasoned actor — nuanced, intense and funny.
Burden, whose only previous acting experience has been in high school plays, also performs like an experienced professional. He captures the look and the voice and the gestures of what audiences have come to expect of a young man from a neighborhood in Brooklyn.
The three adults in the play, Garman, Roza and Pinkston, bring years of acting experience to the stage, and they handle their parts well.
That leaves the other two younger actors, Kate-Lynn Siemers as Laurie and Andrea Gordon as Nora. Both capture the looks and movements of their characters, but each needs to project better. It was difficult to hear them on opening night.
“Brighton Beach Memoirs” at Lakewood Playhouse is a fitting tribute to the late Neil Simon. It is three hours long, and the theater warns that the sexual discussions between the brothers might not be suitable for younger audience members.
Brighton Beach Memoirs
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays, through Sept. 30.
Where: Lakewood Playhouse, 5729 Lakewood Towne Center Blvd., Lakewood.
Information: 253-588-0042, https://www.lakewoodplayhouse.org/