Make no mistake about it: Johnny Peppers loves directing shows by Broadway playwright Neil Simon, as evidenced by his two latest theatrical adventures. With Brighton Beach Memoirs performing to audience acclaim as part of Circle Players' 2011-12 season at The Keeton Theatre-coming right after the closing of Barefoot in the Park that was part of Franklin's Pull-Tight Players' season-Peppers has been immersed in the stage works of one of the theater's most prolific writers.
"I think that his writing is brilliant, but you have to be sure to understand what's beyond the lines," he suggests. "There is a lot of subtext, and even though it's a comedy, I would rather see it as a drama with comic elements."
As part of Simon's autobiographical and alliterative "BB" trilogy (which includes Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound in addition to Brighton Beach Memoirs), much of the subtext stems from Simon's own life. Brighton Beach Memoirs focuses on the central character of Eugene Morris Jerome, the fictional counterpart of the writer portrayed as a young teenager in 1937, living with his extended family in a crowded, lower middle class neighborhood.
When Brighton Beach Memoirs debuted on Broadway in 1983, it won three Tony Awards, one for Matthew Broderick who played 14-year-old Eugene on his way to becoming a top-flight Broadway star-the role now played for Circle Players by Will Butler.
Dreaming of baseball and girls and becoming a writer, Eugene must cope with the rather mundane existence of his family life in Brooklyn: an overworked father, an overbearing mother and his older brother Stanley who he admires. Throw into the mix his widowed Aunt Blanche, mother of two teenaged daughters and Grandpa, the Socialist patriarch of the clan, and you have a the makings of a classic Simon comedy, featuring a dysfunctional, if ultimately lovable, family.
Butler, a recent graduate of Belmont's Theatre Performance program, says he has no trouble relating to his character's relationships with his family.
"My family can be is very dysfunctional at times, I can definitely pull from that. We all know that everybody's family is a little crazy," he said, and that is why the show resonates so well with audiences.
"I really wanted to tackle this role. Eugene is a very funny, witty guy, but there are poignant moments in the show where the audience sees Eugene changing and growing. That'll be the challenge, to find the balance between the funny and the very dramatic overtones."
To mine all the riches of Simon's script, Peppers works to ensure that all of his actors understand the people, places and things beyond the clever and amusing dialogue crafted by the master playwright.
"I think the key to this play is that even in times of disarray, there is comedy found everywhere," Peppers explains. "If you dive fully into the story, you'll find that everybody in the play changes and moves. It is such a nice ensemble piece."
Brighton Beach Memoirs runs through Sunday, March 18, at The Larry Keaton Theatre on 108 Donelson Pike, Nashville. Curtain is at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Tickets are $18 for adults, $15 for students and seniors ages 60 and up. Children 6 and under attend free. All tickets are $11 on Thursdays. Group discounts are available by calling (615) 332-7529.
Tickets are available online at www.circleplayers.net or by telephone at (615) 332-7529. Individual tickets are on sale at the box office at the Keeton Theatre one hour before each performance.