Brighton Beach Memoirs, the first in a trilogy of quasi-autobiographical plays written by Neil Simon, is a coming-of-age comedy that takes place in the Brighton Beach area of Brooklyn, NY, in the fall of 1937, right in the middle of the Great Depression and just before World War II. The year and location in which the play takes place is central to how the story unfolds.
The year is significant because the play takes place during the Great Depression, and many of the issues facing the Jerome family are financial. At the start of the play, Eugene lives with his brother, Stanley, and his parents, Kate and Jack. Tensions are high from the very beginning as the Jerome family welcomes Kate’s sister, Blanche, and her two daughters, Nora and Laurie, to live with them after the death of their Blanche's husband. Because of this, Jack now has to work two jobs to support the two families in his overcrowded house. Financial issues continue to affect the inhabitants of the Jerome household when Stanley, who normally gives his salary from his job to his father, loses his wages in a poker game.
The location is significant because the play follows a Polish-Jewish family in a predominantly Jewish area of Brooklyn. Although Neil Simon, a Jew himself, was born in the Bronx and raised in Washington Heights, he set his semi-autobiographical play in Brighton Beach, possibly because it is a neighborhood with a predominately Jewish population. In fact, Simon even describes the location in its opening stage direction as “a lower-middle-income area inhabited mostly by Jews, Irish and Germans.” While Brighton Beach is known today for its predominantly Russian-speaking community, in the years leading up to and during the Great Depression it consisted mostly of Jewish immigrant communities.
When describing his body of work, Simon himself has said “I don’t write social or political plays… because I’ve always thought the family was the microcosm of what goes on in the world… I write about the small wars that eventually become the big wars.” While Brighton Beach Memoirs is a coming-of-age story following an “almost but not nearly” fifteen-year-old, Simon uses the location and time period in which the play is set to tell a story larger than its plot.