Honesty, dignity, and Neil Simon. No, I know what you mean: I didn’t expect to be writing those three terms in sequence any more than you expected to read them in this column. But you also already know the invisible fourth term that connects them: David Cromer. Among Broadway’s money folk, Cromer has apparently become the new buzzword in directing. This is a pity: Artists shouldn’t be reduced to buzzwords; the buzzing makes people lose sight of the many other fine directors around; and Cromer’s future would probably be more exciting if he could generate his own projects instead of being blitzkrieged with commercial offers. But meantime, he has directed the revival of Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs (Nederlander Theatre), contiguous with his Off-Broadway productions of Our Town and the musical Adding Machine in that it gives an old work a new look that reaffirms its value.
Not that Brighton Beach Memoirs (1983) ever laid claim to any particularly high value. I doubt that even those who rate it and its two follow-up plays about the lives of Eugene Morris Jerome and his family, Biloxi Blues (1985) and Broadway Bound (1988), among Simon’s highest achievements would say it ranks with Our Town. For me, frankly, the hard part has always been regarding it as a play. Most of Simon’s works, with their accumulations of one-liners heaped up with little regard for character or situation, fall into the category for which I long ago coined the helpful term “gagpile.” The original production of Brighton Beach Memoirs, despite its castful of first-rate actors, put the play squarely in that Simonian line. The laughs, immaculately timed, were plentiful; moment to moment, the individual characters’ feelings were precisely placed. But there was no sense of family, of poverty, of Jewish Brooklyn. Everything looked comfy and bright; the Jeromes might have been celebrating Christmas in Hollywood instead of facing the Depression on Sheepshead Bay.
With Cromer, things have changed. Most of the laughs are still there, but the Jerome house, circa 1938, seems older, darker, wearier. Between John Lee Beatty’s muted green set and Jane Greenwood’s mostly brown costumes, the look suggests a faded sepia photograph; Brian MacDevitt’s somber lights evoke a house whose tenants worry about the electric bill. The jokes are tossed off as they crop up, but the emotions linger: Cromer has paid Simon’s play the compliment of taking it seriously. As a result, at least for me, it actually has for the first time the substantive feel of a play.
Teenager Eugene (Noah Robbins), his older brother, Stan (Santino Fontana), and their parents, Jack and Kate (Dennis Boutsikaris and Laurie Metcalf), have as their unwanted, non-paying boarders Kate’s widowed sister, Blanche (Jessica Hecht), and her two daughters. Jack and Stan supply the clan’s meager income, on which Kate struggles to keep house, with little help from neurasthenic, shortsighted Blanche. When Stan loses his weekly wages just as overwork temporarily fells Jack, an explosion is ready to occur. In Cromer’s hands, because the intensity of the conflict in each scene is sustained, the tension that builds to the climactic quarrel, during which unforgivable things get said about everybody, comes more from the pent-up frustration of two families forced to share a house intended for one than from the contrived sequence of plot crises that Simon has carefully balanced on top of each other.
The material gets shown up as conventionally sentimental—father turns out to know best, the unforgivable remarks get forgiven, and the family readjusts to a slightly saner routine—but the sentiment now packs its full resonant effect, because the play has been staged to hold together as a play, with something at stake for each character all through. This approach reveals that Simon, whose work often seems structurally cardboard-y, has here built solidly and painstakingly. Because of Cromer, we can see that Brighton Beach Memoirs fits a pattern once popular on Broadway of naturalistic family comedies in which the homey atmosphere, and the solving of multiple small crises, sent audiences back to their own homes and crises in a feel-good glow. Cromer has somewhat acidified the glow—with Hecht, in particular, pushing her character to the edge of grotesquerie—but the good feeling is there, among the astringent tones and the wattage-saving shadows, making the woes of a bad era seem both real and conquerable. Which is what the honest sentiment of old-fashioned Broadway plays was for.
The Roundabout, presumably striving to atone for the avert-your-eyes train wreck of Bye Bye Birdie, has come up with two competently produced offerings that would seem more impressive if they had some artistic reason for existing. The main trouble with Patrick Marber’s After Miss Julie (American Airlines Theatre) is that it comes too long after: Set in 1945, when the Labour Party’s postwar electoral victory signaled the end of aristocratic privilege in England, Marber’s adaptation of Strindberg’s 1888 play takes place in an era when a Lordship’s haughty daughter might know, not only Strindberg’s original, but also 25 years’ worth of loose sexual behavior by girls of her ilk, including five wartime years when England’s stately homes were crammed with evacuees and military officers of indiscriminately mixed social classes. The notion that, in this context, Julie (Sienna Miller) could be so repressed, and get so guilt-racked, over her Daddy’s chauffeur, John (Jonny Lee Miller), seems as untenable as the idea that said chauffeur would deign to clean his master’s boots. Mark Brokaw, directing, tries to mask these anomalies by pumping up his stars’ emotional volume, till Strindberg’s taut story gets blasted into absurdity; only Marin Ireland, playing John’s fiancée, registers as real.
Adam Gwon’s Ordinary Days (Roundabout Underground) is a pallid, tenuous, incessantly pattery little musical, about four pallidly characterized people, that lives down to its title. Gwon is worth encouraging, though his lyrics at present show much more skill than his music does. But the assumption that this sketchy 80-minute event constituted a full evening of theater fits the pattern of an institution where artistic decisions seem to be made randomly, not responsibly.