By Dale King
Summer has arrived, and while most college students have gone home for a school break or to earn tuition money for the coming year, Florida Atlantic University’s Department of Theater and Dance has kicked off its annual Summer Repertory two-show festival.
The first entry is a play that concludes this week. The second is a musical scheduled to open in July.
For the non-musical selection, FAU’s student players have chosen Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs, which ends its two-weekend run Sunday.
The finely acted performance – one of three coming-of-age tales authored by Simon to recall his formative years that stretched from Brooklyn to Broadway – features five of the 10 master of fine arts students enrolled in FAU’s theater arts program.
Brighton Beach Memoirs marked a turning point for Simon, noted Lee Soroko, director of the smartly performed show that takes place in a stage setting that re-creates a comfortable, middle-class home in the era just before World War II.
“Prior to ‘Brighton Beach Memoirs,’ Simon’s plays were either comedies or dramas,” said Soroko. “And his attempts to combine the two were not well received by audiences or the critics.”
Simon’s autobiographical drama, which premiered in 1983, melds whimsy with pathos, anger and, ultimately, forgiveness. He takes the time to develop the characters and spotlight their ability to deal with adversity without decimating the family structure.
The first play in Simon’s biographical hat trick tells how relatives from two different branches of the same family tree survive together in a crowded, single-family domicile in America’s largest city with dark war clouds gathering.
The young Neil Simon is represented by the character Eugene Morris Jerome (Paolo Pineda), the 15-year-old son of housewife Kate (Alyssa Frewen) and garment cutter Jack (Michael Focas). Eugene’s older brother, Stanley (Caleb James Williams), works to provide needed income for this cash-strapped family.
Also populating this packed beachside residence are Kate’s sister, Blanche Morton (Rachel Dawson), who moved in six years earlier when her husband died of cancer (diseases are only whispered about around the house), along with her two kids, Nora (Djimon Armani Williams), now 16, and Laurie (Juliana Parris), 12.
This troupe is particularly talented and balances the precarious mix of comedy and pathos with aplomb. The audience easily empathizes with the Jeromes and Mortons as the level of their emotional angst intensifies.
In the play, Simon moves out of his comfort zone to fully bare his soul, allowing us to see him in his early, seminal years — sassy, yet erudite; cocky, yet easygoing.
Early pubescent Eugene, played with wild abandon by Pineda, seems addicted to the New York Yankees and cousin Nora’s breasts. He more than hints at his intention to become a writer. He is always whipping out a notebook to memorialize a comment, particularly from his mother who spends much of the play yelling, “Eugene!” followed by an order to do one thing or another.
With his laid-back demeanor, ability to bounce back from most troubles and a desire to stay clear of difficulties, Pineda is exceptional as Simon’s alter ego.
As Jack, the industrious, hard decision-making patriarch of the Jerome family, Focas is right on the money. He portrays the more-than-hard-working breadwinner with quiet intensity, often becoming the rock for both branches of the family when tensions arise.
Brighton Beach Memoirs works best when actors relate one-on-one. Focas and Caleb Williams are engaging when they talk as father and older son. Frewen nearly steals the stage with her never-say-die ability to deal with sons Eugene and Stanley. Ditto for Dawson, whose two kids are no angels. And, ultimately, we see she isn’t, either.
Parris’s depiction of Laurie is exceptional — and essential to the plot. The talented young actress portrays the “sickly” child, so mom gives her special attention that eventually takes a contentious toll on Nora. Reconciliation, though unexpected, is poignant and heartwarming.
Djimon Williams is quite capable of portraying Nora, a high school student torn between her going-nowhere status quo life and a chance to dance in a Broadway show. Decisions — or a lack of them — set off her moods, which the actress presents with ease.
The set for Brighton Beach Memoirs uses heavy, dark wood in the dining area and old-fashioned furniture in the living room. A cathedral radio and a copy of the New York Times quietly define the era and the global political scene.
FAU’s summer schedule concludes in July with the musical Rent, Jonathan Larson’s recast of Puccini’s La Bohème, which reveals how a group of Bohemian artists in the East Village of New York deal with gentrification, love, loss and legacies amid the HIV/AIDS crisis. That show runs for three weekends beginning July 15.
Brighton Beach Memoirs continues through Sunday at the Marleen Forkas Studio One Theatre on the FAU-Boca campus. For tickets and information, call 561-297-6124 or email email@example.com.