Family matters at CNY Playhouse

Stanley (Justin Polly) teaching his his younger brother Eugene (Josh Hintz) about the female form.  Photo: Amelia Beamish Brighton Beach Memoirs  Who The Central New York Playhouse Where 3649 Erie Blvd. E, Shoppingtown Mall, Syracuse When Through April 27 Tickets $20; Thursday & Sunday, $15 Review by Josh Austin

If you’re not lustfully talking about sex or breasts to a puberty-stricken 15-year-old boy, you might as well leave the room.

In Neil Simon’s cherished Americana play Brighton Beach Memoirs­, the Jeromes, a Jewish family living in Brooklyn, are combusting. And lucky for us, the few momentous days in 1937 the play chronicles remind us that the times haven’t really changed that much; the original soap opera usually starts right in our own living rooms.

That’s not to cheapen the text of Simon’s masterful play, which is a semi-autobiographical comedy with some serious emotional breadth and is currently running at CNY Playhouse. In-depth questions about “whacking off” come with the territory when a 15-year-old boy is narrating; lines like, “If I had boobs, I sure would like to touch them,” are simple musings for a horny kid.

But for the young Eugene (Josh Hintz), his spring awakening is stirring at the wrong time. His father has a heart condition, his older brother is on the verge of losing his job, his aunt is falling to pieces and his young, sickly cousin has heart palpitations, all while his mom is struggling to keep them all together. Then again, where should his mind be? It seems that focusing on sex—in particular, ogling his budding cousin—and the Yankees provide a much-needed escape for a growing boy.

Still, as ostensibly old-fashioned as the family drama is, Simon’s tale reminds us why Thanksgiving dinners are so dreadfully important and why our big brothers are there for bullying advice. Perhaps the theme is tediously light, but Memoirs offers a reflective journey that holds a mirror to any family.

In Memoirs, the wannabe writer Eugene records his family dysfunction. His Aunt Blanche, a shy widow (played with a mousy touch by Lesley Heisler), and her two daughters, a star-in-the-making, 16-year-old Nora (Erin Griffin) and the sickly, younger Laurie (Zoe Miller), crowd the house already occupied by his 18-year-old brother Stanley (Justin Polly), his restless mother Kate (a boisterous Betsy York) and the almighty patriarch (Keith Arlington).

The precision of Simon’s script shines in the layered problems, ranging from childhood dreams to adulthood actuality. The busy family happily tiptoes around each other to make sure each is comfortable, annoyance aside. Why? Because we are all family, and that’s what families do. It’s only when years of frustration and teenage angst kick-in that the problems begin to outweigh the sugarcoated smiles.

As an ensemble, the cast nicely confronts the risky battlefield that comes with being a Jewish family in 1937 (there’s risk of a war, you know). But, it’s in the little scenes, the monumental fights and touching apologies that this cast pulls off Simon’s words. Polly and Hintz’s scenes together are reminiscent of any brother-to-brother conversation: Throwing zingers and trashing talking each other all in the span of five seconds. The two boys have a connected pace that shuts off the fourth wall that is so regularly broken throughout the show by the narrator.

The cast of 'Brighton Beach Memoirs.' Photo: Amelia Beamish

York as Kate, at times delivering a familiarly annoying mother, is best when she lets her hair down and gives her rigid attentiveness a rest.

Sure, most of these characters are recognizable and overdone. And, it’s not that audiences who watch Memoirs are getting anything new, it’s that they’re getting someone recognizable and endearing.

Director Dan Rowlands established a comfortable setting and fluidity throughout the show, allowing the actors to appear on stage while the action happens somewhere else. The best part of Rowlands’ direction, however, is evident right at the end of Act One, when the entire family is in their own world. The kids resting on their beds, the adults downstairs talking, it’s like a photograph waiting to be taken—the dissection of a home. Rowlands has several of these aweing moments, where everyone on stage, without saying a word, lets the audience in on their thoughts. And, humbling or not, they’re all thinking about each other (even sex-crazed Eugene).

Rowlands writes in his director’s notes, “When stripped of its externals this show is about: brother, sisters, fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters.” But, Mr. Rowland, you forgot to mention cousins.