Brighton Beach Memoirs is a comedy about a Jewish working-class family living in Brooklyn during the Great Depression. The first act begins at 6:30 p.m. in September, 1937, the second at 6:30 p.m. a week later. There is a single setting, the home of the Jerome family in Brighton Beach. The action moves from room to room, however, and even just outside the front door.
In the first act, Neil Simon establishes the problems that his characters are facing, as shown not only in dialogue and action but also in Eugene Jerome’s asides. Eugene’s function in the play is twofold. He is the protagonist, a teenager preoccupied with his own problems, and he is also an observer, making notes from which he will eventually write this play. One of the story lines deals with the Jerome family as an entity, about to break apart because of financial pressure and personal differences; the other focuses on Eugene, who sees himself as the family scapegoat but is even more disturbed about the onset of puberty.
The tension in the Jerome household is evident from the moment that the curtain rises. The small home is overcrowded, containing not only Jack and Kate Jerome and their sons, Stanley and Eugene, but also Kate’s widowed sister, Blanche Morton, and her two children, Nora and Laurie. Blanche earns some money through sewing, and Stanley turns over his wages to his parents, but it is Jack who...
Brighton Beach Memoirs begins as the lights come up on Eugene Jerome playing outside the family home. A voice like that of a radio sports announcer can be heard as Eugene goes through the motions of a mock baseball game. He is dressed in knickers, a shirt and tie, a faded and torn sweater, Keds sneakers, and a blue baseball cap. The house is a wooden frame building in a lower-middle-class district of Brooklyn, New York. The time is about half past six in the evening. Inside the house, Kate Jerome is setting the table for the supper meal. Kate’s sister, Blanche Morton, is occupied at the sewing machine; Laurie Morton is reading a book on the sofa. The general condition of the interior of the house suggests that this is a family struggling financially.
The audience discovers early in act 1 that the Jeromes are a Jewish family trying to survive during the Depression years of the late 1930’s. Jack Jerome works hard to provide food, clothing, insurance, and a house for the two families. Blanche’s husband, Dave, died at the age of thirty-six, leaving her and her two daughters without any financial stability. The Mortons had to move in with Blanche’s sister’s family in order to survive. Laurie has a heart flutter which requires a doctor’s supervision. Blanche, while young and attractive, has resisted meeting other men since Dave’s death; thus, she and her daughters must depend on the kindness and generosity of others.
Nora Morton returns home from her weekly dance lesson with the news that Mr. Beckman, a Broadway producer, has asked her to audition for a dancing role in the soon-to-be-produced musical Abracadabra. Her desire to be in the musical conflicts with Blanche’s desire that she complete high school. This conflict heightens the stress that exists in the interpersonal relationship between mother and daughter. Further increasing the tension is Stanley Jerome’s revelation that he has been fired from his seventeen-dollar-a-week job unless he writes a letter of apology to his boss, Mr. Stroheim, for sweeping dirt on his shoes. When Jack arrives home from work the audience sees a fatigued and completely exhausted man carrying a heavy load of responsibility on his shoulders. In order to meet the needs of his family he works as a cloth cutter during the day and sells noisemakers at night. Jack’s news about the events surrounding his work day is dismal: The noisemaker business has gone bankrupt.
Around the supper table, family members attempt to pressure one another into revealing their various problems and concerns. No resolution to the issues is reached during the meal. In fact, it appears that everything is all the more confused by a lack of straightforward discussion among the individuals at the table.
After supper, Jack and Nora go for a walk to discuss Nora’s desire to audition for the musical. The tension between Blanche and Nora is strongly intensified when Jack tells Nora that she should stay in school. Nora explodes from a sense of deep frustration: She sees her chances of fame and success slipping away.
Eventually, Stanley confides in his father, telling him about the events at work at Mr. Stroheim’s. Once he is confident that his father respects his having stood up for his principles at work, Stanley resolves to apologize to Mr. Stroheim in order to keep his job. The act ends with Stanley...
Brighton Beach Memoirs uses several dramatic devices to provide theatergoers with a literal and a metaphorical interpretation of the play. Initially, the set description establishes an environment that re-creates a realistic view of family life during a more innocent period of United States history. The exterior of the wood-frame house and the interior furnishings reflect the image of an average American family during the final years of the Great Depression. It is important for the audience to be able to get a feeling for the characters’ environment in order to understand their joys and tribulations. This realistic setting permits a literal understanding of Neil Simon’s play.
On the other hand, the house and characters serve as a metaphoric microcosm of the world at that time. The characters offer a representation of the nations of the world, as they struggle to control and maintain their destinies in an increasingly chaotic universe. The family becomes a microculture representing the macroculture of the world in the late 1930’s. As the family goes through its normal routine, the audience watches the tensions build between its various members. Relationships become strained further with each new difficulty confronting the family. The family upheaval, therefore, becomes a metaphor for the tensions existing between nations just prior to the entry of the United States into World War II. As the family had experienced happier and better days, so...