Highlighted by some truly stellar performances that more than do justice to Neil Simon's evocative, semi-autobiographical script, Circle Players' production of Brighton Beach Memoirs enters its third and final weekend of performances with its heart in the right place.
Directed with care and attention to detail by Johnny Peppers, who is quickly becoming the go-to guy for Simon shows in Nashville (just prior to the opening of Circle's Brighton Beach Memoirs, his production of Barefoot in the Park for Franklin's Pull-Tight Players closed), the play features young Will Butler as the play's nominal lead-and stand-in for Simon himself, upon whose life the richly drawn characters and situations are derived-Eugene Morris Jerome, a 15-year-old Polish American Jewish boy living in Brooklyn with his parents, his brother, his aunt and her two daughters.
Eugene is preternaturally observant, wise beyond his years, with an ear for that which separates us from the lesser beings and a fascination for all the vagaries of life-all of which figures prominently into the "memoirs" he's forever committing to his journal, surely to provide fodder for the future career to which he aspires. Since Eugene's life and words come from Simon's own adolescence and young adulthood, the stories woven together in Brighton Beach Memoirs have a light and entertaining quality that appeals to all members of the audience, yet they are grounded by the realities of the world in which the Jerome family struggles to survive, somehow maintaining their dignity along the way.
The time is 1937: Hitler has already annexed Austria and his plans for world domination are set into motion, with scores of Jerome relatives scurrying to find a way to get out of Poland before the worst happens. This historical perspective lends further credibility to Simon's play-the first of his "Eugene" trilogy that follows his protagonist from boyhood to his first successes as a comedy writer and which includes Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound-and helps to establish the play's time frame with certainty. While heartfelt and genuinely moving, Brighton Beach Memoirs never becomes mawkish or overly sentimental; rather, it walks that fine line with grace, wit and excessively good charm.
Credit to Peppers, justifiably, for his direction of the piece (which includes an interesting configuration for audience seating in order to better utilize the confines of The Keeton Theatre) and his obvious affection for the literature of the play, although blocking at times seems rather static and uninspired. Here's a quibble: If the Jeromes' dining table had been moved slightly, sight lines during Act One's dinner scene would have been so much better. Whether the set designer made that choice (Caleb Burke's all-too-literal design of the family's lower class home somehow overpowers the onstage action) or if the onus falls on Peppers, it was the director's ultimate responsibility.
Much of the credit for the show's ultimate success, however, is due the actors for their focused performances, particularly Butler, whose portrayal of Eugene is richly nuanced and perfectly modulated. He convincingly plays a 15-year-old with the right blend of adolescent world weariness and naivete, thus making Eugene's sex-crazed, Yankees-obsessed demeanor all the more appealing and accessible. Speaking directly to the audience as he guides them through the nooks and crannies of his family's life and relationships, Butler exudes a deft mixture of charm and confidence that is essential for the character to be at all believable.
As Eugene's older brother Stanley, Jordan Ravellette's performance allows the actor to show off his estimable talents and unfettered ability to become the character with seamless and accurate precision. Ravellette's performance is revelatory in its scope; heretofore, he has been seen in musical comedies that have certainly shown off his skill, but none of those roles have offered the opportunities that Stanley does. Clearly, Ravellette's performance, alone, is worth the price of admission.