Brighton Beach Memoirs is part of a trilogy by Neil Simon, many of whose works are well regarded for their ability to present a "snapshot" of what life was like for regular people during some very powerful chapters of American history. The year in which this play opens is 1937, which is before the war, but right in the middle of the Great Depression. It is vital to note that these years of the early twentieth century are regarded as a time in which America grew from a sleepy, post-colonial, and isolated country into a powerful global presence, with a new place in international relations. It was the time in which the whole world went through what might be called the "birthing pains" of truly entering the modern era. Historically, it is difficult to underestimate the importance of this time.
Most of Simon's scripts take place in New York City, which was at that time, much as it is now, considered a place of action and progress and something of a "melting pot" for diverse groups of people, making it a fascinating place through which to observe the effects of global affairs. In a sense, Simon puts a human face on what are otherwise just historical "facts." While his plays are somewhat autobiographical, his use of setting, including historical time placement, offers insight into the events that defined America's "coming of age," as seen through the real lives of the simple people who lived it.
Simon starts his play right in the middle of this greater chapter. Through the characters we see the reality of living in a time in which money was scarce for many people and employment was not about finding "career satisfaction" but rather doing whatever you could do to keep yourself and your family safe, fed, and housed. This is where Simon once again puts the human face on what was happening at that time.
The story of America being told here, of moving from a somewhat naive and inward-looking nation, to one that has been harshly brought into an awareness of the toughness of the world is paralleled by the character of Eugene. Eugene is a young man, experiencing the changes that are often called "coming of age," meaning to cast off the naiveté of childhood for the open-eyed experience of being a man. Eugene is worried about whether he will be a professional baseball player or a writer. He thinks about girls, and learns about swear words. At the same time, he cannot help but be part of what is happening around him when the war comes, as his Jewish family becomes increasingly aware of what Hitler is doing to other Jews in Europe. This is an eye-opening experience for a young man, who must join his family in preparing to welcome distant relatives (also Jewish) who have escaped from Europe and must seek their help, despite the financial challenges they as a family experience already.
What we see in Eugene is how...
the harshness of the world breaks through his "bubble" of naiveté as a young person, and forces him into a new maturity. This is in many ways what happened to America during the same historical time period, all of which is woven into one story by the author, making the history and the humanity of it into one experience for the viewer.