ABOUT FACES Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs invokes the nostalgic tension of Tennessee Williams.
While the house lights are still up before the start of Portland Stage Company’s Brighton Beach Memoirs, we watch the actors, near the open wings, stretch, adjust each other’s costumes, and cheer as Anita Stewart comes out to give the pre-show talk. Meta-theater and lyricism reign in director Samuel Buggeln’s take on the semi-autobiographical comedy by Neil Simon, a reflection on the hardship, work, and family struggles that he experienced growing up in the 1940’s Bronx. Buggeln and set designer Brittany Vasta have re-imagined Simon’s comedic realism as poetic and subjective, and Vasta creates a striking visual idiom of memory: Eugene (Matt Mundy) and his family live in a lyrically remembered “dream house.”
This house holds the memories that an older Eugene has about younger Eugene—a horny fifteen-year-old would-be writer—and his childhood household. He lived with not only his overworked father Jack (Corey Gagne), no-nonsense mother Kate (Mary Jo Mecca), and charismatic older brother Stanley (Marek Pavlovski), but also Kate’s widowed and asthmatic sister Blanche (Abigail Killeen) and her two daughters: blonde, teenaged Nora (Julia Knitel) and younger, spoiled Laurie (Elaine Landry, alternating with Dora Chaison-Lapine). The family’s quarters are close and conflicts rife—over a Broadway audition, an unjust boss, a lifetime of sororal resentment—and Buggeln’s dynamic and cohesive cast makes taut work of the tensions barely contained in one small house.
Vasta’s set design for this remembered home takes on the unlikely adventure of visualizing Simon a la Tennessee Williams, and what she comes up with is gorgeous. Working with the stage’s handsome brick back walls and lighting scaffolding fully exposed, she piles rooms and furniture on top of each other, yet keeps things airy and whimsical. The set boasts open walls, impossible constructions, tall ladder-like structures rising from the third floor, and few but potent objects—a clock, a model ship, a typewriter. Going upstairs, for young Eugene and everyone else, means scrambling up a dresser, a kitchen table, and a suitcase.
Other staging and blocking moves also serve to remind us of the play’s conceit. During a tense dinner, family members all face the audience, perched variously not on just chairs but tabletops, a trunk, the back of a sofa. This device works to let us see faces register nervousness, dread, or irritation as the conversation haltingly unfolds, suggesting how Eugene might remember each relative’s face isolated from the scene. Buggeln deconstructs the scene even further—and more distractingly—by having a character look up and left, for example, to talk to someone who is actually down and to their right. In a particularly sweet memory-dream effect, characters “take” imaginary nuts from a bowl by chiming the tongs against the glass.
As the object of Eugene’s tireless lust, Knitel’s Nora is gracefully vivacious, like a clear and fast-moving brook, while Landry gives her Laurie both nasal petulance and a hint of self-awareness. As Eugene’s idol, Pavlovski’s Stanley—long, limber, and loose-limbed in mustard suede and a fedora—has a convincing complexity and moral center. The fine Mecca is wryly good-hearted as Kate, playing in great contrast to Killeen, who flutters and sighs in soft, high-colored blues as Blanche. Gagne, with his rich voice, seems to often play stentorian and/or Shakespearean characters; it’s fun to see him in a more colloquial role, bringing a quieter authority to the tired, wise patriarch. And as the young Eugene, Mundy is antic, frenetic, everywhere at once, cartoonishly nimble. Everything to him is crucial and immediate, whether Yankee stats, a cookie, or Nora’s breasts; his older self inhabits this young self with a zinging distillation of youth’s energy.