Stageworks delivers Brighton Beach Memoirs

Strong performances carry Neil Simon's sunny play.

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click to enlarge OH, BROTHERS: Nic Carter (left) and Ricky Cona star as siblings Stanley and Eugene Jerome in Brighton Beach Memoirs. - Courtesy Stageworks
Courtesy Stageworks
OH, BROTHERS: Nic Carter (left) and Ricky Cona star as siblings Stanley and Eugene Jerome in Brighton Beach Memoirs.

Two stars really shine in the entertaining but intellectually thin Brighton Beach Memoirs, now playing in a Stageworks production at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center.

The first is Ricky Cona, who as the 15-year-old Eugene, is both the narrator of Neil Simon's play and the object of much of its comedy. Ricky is a hormonal mess, obsessed with his busty 16-year-old cousin Nora, determined to see her naked by hook or crook, and experiencing his first wet dreams — which he doesn't understand at all.

Cona doesn't just play this part, he makes it legendary, mythical, the Adolescent Nerd as Jungian archetype. Whether filling in the audience on some important detail of the plot, swooning over an explicit French postcard or trying to sneak a contraband oatmeal cookie past his vigilant mother, Cona is magnetic, hilarious and ready for Broadway. If there's any justice in the theater world, this young actor has a fine career waiting for him.

The other luminary couldn't be more different. Rosemary Orlando is a veteran of Bay area stages; she's acted and directed here for more than a decade. As Eugene's Aunt Blanche, Orlando offers a carefully detailed, emotionally compelling performance. This is a defeated woman, a sad, wounded spirit who trudges through the life left to her; she expects nothing from the world, certainly not joy. When Blanche finally has a date with a Mr. Murphy across the street, Orlando prepares for the event with the slightest hint of a smile, as if the last candle within her may be sputtering into life. Acting doesn't get more truthful.

And Simon's play (which I saw in a preview) is truthful, too, in its limited way. The Jerome family, as he presents it, is riven by rivalries, longstanding resentments and, especially, money woes. Problem is, Simon has nothing to tell us about these difficulties other than that they exist. This playwright only knows what most playwrights know: that hell is other people, but so is heaven. So his characters fight and make up, criticize and praise, attack and apologize — and there's never an epiphany, never a moment of profound insight into their, or our, condition. This has been Simon's strength over his career: not to understand more than his audience, not to challenge or outrage, but to reassure us that our values are good and our choices unobjectionable.

That's also why he's so often suffered critical derision: Next to Arthur Miller's attack on capitalism or Tennessee Williams' forays into eroticism and despair, how can you take seriously Simon's well-meaning palookas with their identical hearts of gold?

Still, the playwright is technically gifted — the juggling of scenes in Brighton Beach is dazzlingly successful — and his own heart of gold makes for a pleasant experience. The narrative he's created for Brighton Beach Memoirs involves several plots at once. It's Depression-era New York, and paterfamilias Jack Jerome is trying to support his noisy brood by holding down two jobs. But one career evaporates, and it's impossible for him to pay all the family bills on only one salary. So he turns to his son Stanley for help, but Stanley is about to lose his job because he righteously stood up for a fellow worker in front of their boss.

Meanwhile, Jack's niece Nora has just been offered a position in the chorus of a Broadway show — but she's only 16, and her mother Blanche would prefer that she finish high school and go to college. And our hero, Eugene Jerome, obsessed with Nora's body, is in urgent need of some quick sex education, preferably from brother Stanley, and preferably without too much embarrassing detail.

Finally, Blanche — Nora's widowed mother — is almost inured to living single the rest of her life, until hard-drinking Mr. Murphy across the street asks her out on a date. Will the Jeromes earn enough money to survive? Will Nora become a Broadway star? And will Eugene ever find his personal Shangri-la, the sight of his nude cousin?

Besides Cona and Orlando, there are two other actors who turn in impeccable work: Nic Carter as Stanley and Shelby Lopez as Nora. Carter plays Eugene's brother as a solid, serious workhorse, a young man who hides much forbidden knowledge behind a seemingly innocuous exterior and who only fitfully accepts his unasked-for role as Eugene's sex tutor. Lopez plays nubile Nora as an adolescent entirely unconscious of her own sexuality or of the dangerous world that exists outside her carefully sheltered household.

Director Anna Brennen presents the multiple plots of Brighton Beach with laudable dexterity, and R.T. Williams' lovingly detailed interior, featuring a dining room at ground level and two bedrooms a few yards behind and above, has as much personality as does any performer. Finally, Amy Cianci's costumes couldn't be more appropriate.

Ultimately, though, in Brighton Beach Simon does little more than prove he can be a sharp observer when he wants to be. But he barely scratches the surface with this busy, predictable play.

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