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Broadway is no day at the 'Beach' for Neil Simon

November 03, 2009|James C. Taylor

NEW YORK — The ba-dum-bum exchange could have been written by Neil Simon. All that was missing was the rimshot. Two women of a certain age at intermission:

First Woman: "The other thing he directed was quite good, this is just boring."

Second Woman: "I fell asleep."

First Woman: "Ditto," as she tosses her Playbill into the trash.

The two walk out into the rainy night.

This scene, which took place Saturday night at the Nederlander Theatre, sums up the conventional wisdom regarding why Simon's "Brighton Beach Memoirs" closed the next day -- after only nine performances. The audience wasn't building. Even the older crowd was staying away -- and those that did come were turned off by David Cromer's staging and not recommending the show to their friends.

But at the final evening performance of "Brighton Beach Memoirs," the scenes onstage told a different story. The reason this revival of Simon's autobiographical play about growing up in the 1930s flopped had little to do with quality. Sure, Simon's old-fashioned domestic comedy is not for everyone, but Cromer's staging and the actors were not to blame. The direction and performances were first-rate -- as evidenced in mostly positive but not stellar reviews, and in another scene in the same lobby, a few minutes later.

Two other women of a certain age at intermission:

Third Woman: "It's a delightful show."

Fourth Woman: "Isn't it just wonderful?"

The two women return to their seats for Act 2.

Poor packaging

The reason "Brighton Beach Memoirs" closed early and "Broadway Bound" was aborted in previews was, not surprisingly, all about money. As dated as Neil Simon's plays are -- and let's face it, they were almost dated back when they were written, though it didn't stop them from being hits -- what was even more dated was the producers' business plan.

Everyone knows that the old days of premiering a play on Broadway without a big star are over. Simon used to be a star. He had the kind of name recognition to alone spur tickets sales -- but those days are long gone. (Simon learned this in the 1990s and then started workshopping his plays at the Mark Taper Forum in L.A. before their Broadway runs.) Any straight play that comes to Broadway today and expects to sell most of its tickets has to have big stars (see "A Steady Rain"), be a proven commodity elsewhere (see "God of Carnage") or be produced through a nonprofit venture (see "The Royal Family"). The stakes are just too high.

The idea of doing these Simon comedies in rep was a good one in theory, but it needed to be bigger. "Brighton Beach Memoirs" is a solid, American play, but it's not a classic.

The actors were all first rate, yet their names (and their roles) don't command attention. The producers of "The Neil Simon Plays" (as the two-play series was billed) didn't team with a nonprofit, nor did they package the material properly. Why open the plays so far apart? Why two plays instead of adding "Biloxi Blues" and making it a full trilogy? The success (and problems) of "The Norman Conquests" trilogy last season would seem to have made it clear how one could make a venture like "The Neil Simon Plays" work: If you're trying to sell old material with no stars, make it an event.

Not a timeless play

Perhaps the producers were hoping for Cromer to provide the "event." Cromer's off-Broadway "Our Town" has proved itself to be "must-see" theater, but then it was tested elsewhere on the cheap, and its bare-bones style gives it novelty. Even if you've seen it before, experiencing Cromer's "Our Town" is like seeing a new play; Cromer's "Brighton," on the other hand, looked like countless other old plays -- and many New York theatergoers still remember the original. "Brighton" is simply not as timeless or universal as "Our Town," so short of setting it on a bare stage or using an all-Vietnamese cast, there was little for Cromer to do to make it stand out.

What he did do was direct it in a straightforward, insightful way. Cromer avoided putting a personal stamp on the show and just focused on mood. The acting was subtle (unlike recent revivals of "The Odd Couple" and "Barefoot in the Park"), yet the jokes all earned laughs, and in a few moments Simon's writing almost felt like Arthur Miller (almost).

"Brighton Beach Memoirs" was a strong if not scintillating production. With time (and a better business plan), it could have found an audience -- but one week after opening, the prognosis didn't look good.

All of this gave an added meaning to the rhetorical question the father character (movingly played by Dennis Boutsikaris) asks his son, who's about to be fired: "You did the right thing, you showed you have principles . . . but can this family afford principles right now?"

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