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October 30, 2009

TT: It's funny, but is it art?

This was a good week on Broadway. David Cromer's production of Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs and the new revival of Finian's Rainbow, both of which I review in this morning's Wall Street Journal, are exceptionally fine and persuasive mountings of deeply flawed shows. Here's an excerpt.

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neilsimoncover.jpgThe trouble with "Brighton Beach Memoirs," in which Eugene Jerome (Noah Robbins), the author's fictional mouthpiece, tells us how it felt to be a teenager in Brooklyn on the eve of World War II, is that it's a slice of life with too much frosting on top. As always with Mr. Simon, the characters all talk like stand-up comics, frothing at the mouth with one-liners ("Her windows are so filthy, I thought she had black curtains hanging inside") instead of letting laughter arise naturally from the situations in which they find themselves. Mr. Simon abruptly turns off the wisecrack tap in the second act, thereby signaling that he's Getting Serious. For 20 minutes or so the squabbling members of the Jerome family lob grenades of pent-up rage and frustration at one another. Then they kiss, make up and send everybody home happy, save for those suckers who were briefly fooled into thinking that Mr. Simon's bait-and-switch act is something other than a sentimental portrayal of the splendors and miseries of Jewish family life circa 1937.

What Mr. Cromer has done to "Brighton Beach Memoirs" is stage it for truth, not laughs, as if it were a play by Alan Ayckbourn--or Chekhov. Except for Mr. Robbins, whose squirmingly self-conscious speeches to the audience give him little choice but to be charming, nobody overeggs the pudding, nor is anyone too pretty or too cute. Dennis Boutsikaris and Laurie Metcalf, who play Eugene's parents, carry themselves not like sitcom characters but human beings...

I'm not going to try to tell you that all this effort has turned "Brighton Beach Memoirs" into a theatrical masterpiece. It's still a commercial comedy into which a freshening dollop of vinegar has been stirred. But by steering clear of coarse trickery, David Cromer has made the Jerome family seem immeasurably more real without diminishing the play's still-considerable entertainment value....

I don't think I've ever seen a more musically satisfying Broadway show than "Finian's Rainbow." Not only is the Yip Harburg-Burton Lane score a string of flawlessly cut gems, but everyone involved with the production takes the songs seriously, performing them with love and sensitivity....

Unfortunately, there comes a time in "Finian's Rainbow" when the actors stop singing and start talking, at which point it becomes excruciatingly clear that the book, by Harburg and Fred Saidy, is a heavy-handed mishmash of Irish whimsy-whamsy and smug sanctimony....

Go for the music. It's worth it.

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Read the whole thing here.

Posted October 30, 2009 12:00 AM

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