Portland Stage Company opens its season with a new take on an old classic, Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs.” The play previews next Tuesday to Thursday and opens Sept. 26.
It tells the story of 15-year-old Eugene Jerome, who is growing up in post-Depression Brooklyn in a lower-middle class Jewish household. He wants to play baseball professionally, and if he can’t do that, he wants to be a writer. But what he really wants is to see a naked girl, and his older cousin, Nora, would be just fine. The coming-of-age comedy opened on Broadway in 1983 and starred young Matthew Broderick as Eugene. It was the first of Simon’s trilogy of autobiographical plays based on his childhood, the others being “Biloxi Blues” and “Broadway Bound.”
Familiar though this play is, the Portland Stage production will have a different feel. The script hasn’t changed, and it’s still set in Brooklyn in the late 1930s. But director Sam Buggeln’s vision is not gritty realism, which is how many directors handle this play, but more of heightened realism, almost like a poem.
Buggeln called “Brighton Beach Memoirs” a memory play. “Eugene tells us that we’re seeing his memories. That was a potent road in for us to do something unconventional with this play,” he said.
He and set designer Brittany Vasta created a multi-level set that is open to the back and on the sides. Instead of conventional stairs leading from one level to the next, furniture pieces — tables, chairs, suitcases — serve as steps. Everything is tight, askew and just a little bit off. The set feels almost like sculpture. The cast of seven is on stage throughout, and masked in dark when not in a scene.
The story brings two families together under one roof – Eugene, his brother and their parents, as well as his aunt and two female cousins. They’re on top of each other in a house that’s too small for one family.
“It’s tight and getting tighter,” Buggeln said. “The whole house is barely holding together and could come apart at any moment. We wanted to create this feeling of precariousness.”
“Brighton Beach Memoirs” is an American classic. It’s been done many times, and twice on Broadway. Audiences are familiar with the story. If not, they’re at least familiar with Simon and his style. Given that familiarity, Buggeln felt emboldened to take chances with the presentation. Simon wrote the play so Eugene addresses the audience, telling us what’s happening in a household that is full of drama. His older cousin Nora wants to dance in a Broadway musical, but her mom says no. His brother Stanley is about to be fired from a job that the family needs to keep the household functioning. His father, Jack, has lost a second job.
But they still get together around the dinner table each night, and they still respect parental authority. And Eugene still turns to his older brother for questions about sex.
This is Buggeln’s seventh production at Portland Stage. Among his previous comedies at the theater are “Noises Off” and “The 39 Steps.” The Portland Stage season extends into spring, and includes a mix of comedies and dramas, including the premiere of Portland writer Monica Wood’s “Papermaker” in the spring. Next up is “Souvenir,” opening Oct. 28, a comedy about an amateur, tone-deaf opera singer who sees herself as a full-throated diva. The play is told by her accompanist, and tells of the rewards of following your dreams.
“BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS”
WHERE: Portland Stage Company, 25A Forest Ave., Portland
WHEN: Previews at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday to Sept. 25; opens 7:30 p.m. Sept. 26 and continues through Oct. 19.
HOW MUCH: $20 to $47
TICKETS & INFO: 774-0465 or portlandstage.org