Brighton Beach Memoirs

by Neil Simon

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 604

Brighton Beach Memoirs is about the Jeromes, a Brooklyn family in the late Depression era (1937), and the financial difficulties they face when three relatives join the household. For three and one-half years, Kate Jerome’s sister Blanche Morton and Blanche’s two teenage daughters, Laurie and Nora, have lived with the middle-class Jeromes. Although the arrangement is basically amicable, new financial tensions culminate in hard words between Kate and Blanche. Fortunately, the argument teaches Blanche about independence, and the play ends happily, with Blanche making plans to move and with the two sisters closer than ever.

Brighton Beach Memoirs does not really focus on this story of sibling love, however; rather, it is what Simon calls his first “tapestry play.” In all of Simon’s previous plays, he focused on two or three characters and made the other characters peripheral. Here, there is a sense that each character’s story is told with similar emphasis.

Jack Jerome struggles to balance all of his familial roles, as husband, father, and surrogate parent for Laurie and Nora. Stanley Jerome, the eldest son, achieves adulthood by learning from his errors in judgment. Nora Morton, the eldest daughter, gives up illusions of easy fame and fortune as a Broadway showgirl, accepting a closer relationship with her mother and a more responsible familial role, while Laurie Morton, the sickly and highly pampered youngest daughter, will clearly profit from a less indulgent treatment of her illness. A slightly greater dramatic emphasis is perhaps given to fifteen-year-old Eugene Jerome, Simon’s autobiographical alter ego, who serves as the play’s charming narrator. Eugene comes of age in the play, leaving puberty behind as he confronts sexual feelings for his cousin Nora.

As the first play in Simon’s autobiographical trilogy, Brighton Beach Memoirs decisively raised the critical opinion of Simon’s comedies because the play was not at all dependent on one-liners. Its laughter was less boisterous and explosive, becoming warmer, more gentle, more related to character and situation, and more sentimental. Take, for example, one of the first big laughs in the play. Eugene is banging an old softball against a wall, and his mother asks him to stop because Aunt Blanche is suffering from a headache. Eugene begs for a few more pitches because it is a crucial moment in his imaginary replaying of a Yankee World Series game.

When he finally has to give in, he “slams the ball into his glove angrily” but then “cups his hand, making a megaphone out of it and announces . . . ’Attention, ladeees and gentlemen! Today’s game will be delayed because of my Aunt Blanche’s headache’” This humor provokes a smile or chuckle rather than a guffaw; it directs warm and sentimental feelings back toward the character. While there are many one-liners in Brighton Beach Memoirs, they come after the tone of the play has been set and are absorbed by the play’s emphasis on character development and narrative.

Building on the more delicate seriousness achieved in Chapter Two, Brighton Beach Memoirs displays a Simon capable of creating moments of genuine tenderness, as in the scene between Laurie and Nora that begins with “Oh, God, I wish Daddy were alive” and ends with the image of Nora searching the deceased father’s coat pocket for her usual gift. Many critics responded appreciatively, lauding Simon’s new direction. For others, however, the overall effect of the play was still sentimental rather than convincingly serious. Blanche’s fear of intimacy after the death of her husband was easily resolved, for example, and Eugene’s obsession with sex, although cute, was hardly profound.

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