I can say with enthusiasm I’ve never had to endure a dinner of liver and boiled cabbage, and one of the reasons why is Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs.” I saw the show so many years ago I’ve lost track, but I remember enough about my first encounter to know that Simon helped turn me against liver as a main course — even when I’d never tasted it.
Pictured above: The cast of ‘Brighton Beach Memoirs’ at the 2nd Space Theatre. Photo: Good Company Players
It was with a slight sense of homecoming, then, that I settled back to watch Good Company Players’ engaging, wonderfully acted and beautifully directed production of this Simon gem.
When the time came for the famous liver scene, it didn’t disappoint. In “Brighton Beach,” which is a semi-autobiographical outing (and the first of a trilogy), the character of Eugene Jerome (Ben Applegate) is the narrator and stand-in for Simon. The dinner is a momentous one in terms of the everyday life of the family. Eugene’s cousin, Nora (Faith Dumore), who along with her mother and sister are permanent borders in the Jerome household, has something important she needs to ask her Uncle Jack (Henry Montelongo). So does Eugene’s brother, Stanley (Jared Serpa), who has some big news for his father. The fate of two jobs rests on these discussions, so tensions are riding high.
Because of the configuration of the theater (a thrust stage with the audience on three sides), there was no need for director Karan Johnson — who obviously has a deep love and rapport with this play — to set the family dinner up with everyone huddled around one side of the table. (You know, like we’re always seeing in sitcoms, so the camera has a clear shot.) Instead, the seven members of the family settle down to dinner in an ordinary configuration. I was sitting in the middle section, fairly high up, and from my vantage point, Eugene’s slightly terrifying mom, Kate (Cori Randolph), had her back to me.
What I loved so much about this moment is that it felt so real.
Yes, it’s a period piece, and the actors don’t dress like folks do today (thanks to Ginger Kay Lewis Reed’s costumes) and they speak with Brooklyn accents thick enough to break a blender, but somehow, as the conversation progressed around the dinner table, I felt as if I were watching a genuine family talking about genuine things while eating, yes, genuine organ meat.
The cast is very strong. Jared Serpa, who just keeps getting sharper on stage in every role I see him in, gives Stan an older brother’s worldly, pessimistic sheen, but you can still sense the naivete within. (A scene in which he demands to see Eugene’s report card is one of the most moving moments in the show.)
Lyndsey Rae, as the struggling Blanche, brings a simmering sense of liberation to the character; she is wilting under the responsibilities of single parenthood at the moment, but there is steely resolve deep down. Montelongo and Randolph bring a creased, parental weariness to Kate and Jack. As sisters Laurie and Nora, Chloe Dumore and Faith Dumore offer lively portrayals.
And then there’s Applegate as Eugene, whose blunt, animated movements and hyperbolic teenage angst provides a comic frame to what is often sensitive and touching material. Applegate is a standout, and that’s a very good thing, because if Eugene isn’t a standout — if you don’t buy him as the creator and lord of this little slice of the universe before you — then there isn’t any magic.
Eugene’s willingness to confess all as narrator, revealing his bumbling lows but also his soon-to-be highs, is what gives this play such energy and drive. And in this case, it works. Thanks to this fine GCP production, a whole new generation might be deprived of liver as well.