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Brighton Beach Memoirs Parallels Fear and Economic Uncertainty of Today

Image courtesy of TAG

Last year, when The Actors’ Group (TAG) applied to Samuel French, the world’s leading licensor of plays and musicals, to produce Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs” at the Brad Power Theatre in Honolulu, they had no idea how relevant the show would become in March, 2022. Brighton Beach Memoirs is about a Jewish family who had relatives in Poland when Hitler went on his crazy rampage invading other countries. It was a time of uncertainty, and amidst economic turmoil in the United States.

Brighton Beach Memoirs is the first opus of a trilogy. It is a semi-autobiographical of Neil Simon’s teenage years in New Jersey. I had never seen this play, despite being a theatre critic for 20 years. I assumed Brighton Beach was the one I go to in England, where King George IV built his Royal Pavilion. It turns out this Brighton Beach is a neighborhood in Brooklyn, also known as “Little Odessa” due to its influx of Jewish refugees from Odessa, Ukraine, and its environs, after the Soviet Union persecuted them.

My last visit to TAG was during the turn of the millennium when Fran and Wayne Ward presented “America! A Patchwork Quilt.” Most productions over the past two decades have been directed by Artistic Director Brad Powell, and now the theatre bears his name. I like the Brad Powell Theatre for its intimate ambiance – the same reason why I prefer London’s West End over 42nd Street theatres. Since my old boyfriend was part of the Nederlander family, I was fortunate to have opportunities to see plays in many different venues, and the intimate settings were always my favorite.

Brighton Beach Memoirs is the somewhat embellished story of Neil Simon, called Eugene in the play. Eugene portrayed by Mickey Graue, who played Zach in eight episodes of the television series “Lost.” I don’t need to tell you his performance was flawless, his resume speaks for itself. Mickey’s mother, Becky Maltby, also an actor, played the role of Aunt Blanche. The comedy was directed by Joyce Maltby, and the assistant director was Melinda Maltby. One can conclude there is a shipload of talent in the Maltby family.   Mickey’s dad is Dennis Graue, who was the band leader for Don Ho.

Do Ho is the reason why I live in Hawaii.

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 I used to come home from school every day at noon and watched the Don Ho Show on ABC which aired 1976 to 1977. During those cold winter months in Indiana, especially when it was way below zero, I swore to myself, by hook or by crook, one day I would live in Hawaii. And by golly, I made my dream come true.

Eugene, in Brighton Beach Memoirs, is about the same age I was when I was watching Don Ho. Eugene is passionate about what he wants to be when he grows up. Eugene’s family lives in a lower middle-class neighborhood. Eugene dreams of escaping his mundane life and becoming a baseball player. I don’t know what it’s like to be a professional baseball player, but my former boyfriend, Bryan Clutterbuck, had the same dream, and wound up becoming the pitcher for the Milwaukee Brewers. Later, he was hired by the Detroit Tigers. I know what it is like to dream about the future. Eugene never became a baseball player, but he did become Neil Simon, and won more combined Oscar and Tony Award nominations than any other writer in history. I believe Neil Simon was smart for making Eugene’s dream directed toward athletics, because many people can relate to that – certainly greater than the number of teens who dream of winning the Pulitzer Prize.

I’m glad I don’t have to author an original opinion of Brighton Beach Memoirs. It won two Tony Awards, and that speaks for itself. Bill Bullard once said, “Opinion is really the lowest form of human knowledge. It requires no accountability, no understanding. The highest form of knowledge is empathy, for it requires us to suspend our egos and live in another’s world.”

Joyce Maltby triumphed in the quest to elicit empathy. She created a production that so easily transports us into the world of the Jerome family. Although I have never experienced poverty, Joyce shows us what it’s like to be poor, infusing dignity and compassion into the schema, as Kant would call it. The actors made the story come to life, with a narrative so perfectly written that anyone could have empathy for the fears this Jewish family faced during the era of Hitler and The Great Depression.

I will never read a playbill beforehand, because I don’t want it to bias my reaction to a performance.

During my lifetime, I’ve dated quite a few New York Jews, and I was amazed how “Jack Jerome” perfected his accent. Jack Jerome was the most believable character in the play. He walked, he talked, he embodied the perfect physique du rôle. As it turns out, Steven Katz is from New York.

This TAG production parallels, almost eerily, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. We see The Jeromes worry for their relatives in Eastern Europe. In those years, there was no television or internet to show us what was happening day by day. Now, the whole planet is bracing itself, wondering if the Ukraine invasion is going to beget World War III.

After the performance, there was a delightful afterglow in the grand hall of the Dole Cannery center. Our friend, Robert Canino, who is a volunteer with TAG, sat with us and gushed how much he loves working for The Brad Powell Theatre. It was his idea for us to attend Brighton Beach Memoirs, and we know he has good judgment.

In 1983 Neil Simon became the only living playwright to have a New York theatre, the Neil Simon Theatre, named to his honor, after 17 Tony nominations and 3 wins. At one point, he had four successful shows running on Broadway at the same time. It is a requisite to see a Neil Simon play, simply as a matter of knowing American culture. This performance fits the bill, or playbill, should I say.

The Brad Powell Theatre is easy to reach from Waikiki. Bus route 20 stops right in front of the theatre. TAG is a 501(c)(3) federally recognized non-profit organization. 

#eTN #theatre #brightonbeachmemoirs

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About the author

Dr. Anton Anderssen - special to eTN

I am a legal anthropologist. My doctorate is in law, and my post-doctorate graduate degree is in cultural anthropology.

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