Classic coming-of-age comedy at Loft Theatre


Eugene gets scolded by his mother Kate (Lisa Ann Goldsmith).

By Jacqui Theobald

We have all survived adolescence; perhaps without the humor famed playwright Neil Simon brings to Brighton Beach Memoirs. Conflict and confusion couched in humor reflect his own life experience.

Director Marya Spring Cordes said, “It is a heartfelt and nostalgic, almost an autobiographical retrospective of a family struggling to survive a place too small for the four of them plus aunts and cousins.” The time was 1937 when the depression years caused many families to save as best they could. “To be a teen living in a house not big enough to allow each other to have space or a point of view was difficult” she added.

Cordes adds, “The house almost becomes a character all by itself.” The set was designed by Dan Gray who worked with Cordes to create the illusion of cramped space, while allowing simultaneous scenes of various character interactions.

In many ways, the play does reflect the real life of Simon, including a mostly absent father and a harsh mother, Kate, played by Lisa Ann Goldsmith. “I know these people” Goldsmith said, “a Brooklyn Jewish family similar to my own.”

Eugene is mid-teens; he’s Simon’s wry adolescent voice looking back, played by New York actor, Eric Deiboldt.

“Brighton Beach Memoirs is the first play in the Eugene trilogy that includes Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound.” Deiboldt says, “It has always been one of my favorites. I was thrilled to have been selected. No other playwright can bring so much humor to really serious situations and emotions.”

Deiboldt himself is a devoted theatre lover who grew up in a musically inclined household. His mother is a violinist who “always had plenty of vinyl [records] around.”

“The theatre is kind of like magic for me, watching all the different aspects come together, music, lights, performances, scenery,” Deiboldt continues. “It is exciting to be coming to The Human Race Theatre in this play. I first read it in high school,
in a bookstore.”

He went on to describe the reality of a young actor’s life, with practical needs such as rent and other necessities.

“I was working out of town, catering, last fall when I got a call from Kevin Moore, Artistic Producer of the Human Race. Every actor has to have a survival job, or two or three,” Deiboldt recalls. “Moore sent sides (pages of script). I coached with Broadway Tutors, and filmed it. Before Thanksgiving I got the call back.”

Deiboldt is a little older than Eugene’s fifteen years, but describes himself as short with a youthful face. It seems this actor knows how to help the magic happen. That doesn’t take away the excitement or the shine, rather it describes the savvy and knowledge needed to help it occur.

Even though Simon’s play debuted in 1982, Director Cordes sees both the difficulties of adolescence as well as displacement of today’s immigrant families making Brighton Beach Memoirs relevant all over again.

Neil Simon has one of the longest, varied, and most prolific bodies of work imaginable. Before he was thirty he won an Emmy as a writer for Your Show of Shows, the enormously popular television show starring Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. Other notables among the writers were Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, and Woody Allen. Simon based his play Laughter on the 23rd Floor (1993) on that formative experience. A 2001 TV adaptation received two Emmy nominations.

The long list of his plays contains so many titles familiar to theatre lovers of the last third of the twentieth century that it is hard to believe they came from one man’s brain. He wrote more than thirty plays that ran on Broadway. His Hollywood career is equally impressive, with adaptations of his plays and original screenplays such as Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, The Goodbye Girl, The Out-of-Towners, and the previously mentioned Eugene Trilogy.

His stories have been called old-fashioned, perhaps reflecting those of his audience. Over the years critics have noted Simon’s adherence to traditional values of family and marriage in his work. His characters do not display the kind of emotional violence he actually experienced.

Of Simon, writer Lawrence Grobel has said “He towers like a Colossus over the American Theatre” and called him “the Shakespeare of his time.”

Critic Edythe W. McGovern goes so far as to say “Above all, [Simon’s] plays which may appear simple to those who never look beyond the fact that they are amusing are, in fact, frequently more perceptive and revealing of the human condition than many plays labeled complex dramas.”

When the Human Race did Mame in 2014, Lisa Ann Goldsmith performed the title role vivaciously. The much beleaguered, worried, and anxious Kate from Brighton Beach Memoirs is a very different role from her last appearance.

Despite the similarity in their origins and histories, Goldsmith has never done a Simon play before. “I am eager to work on this character,” she said before rehearsals began. “Each play has funny, intense moments and runs the gamut of emotions.”

She had been in Dayton last November to perform a different responsibility; certified Wedding Officiant. “That’s a beautiful experience,” she said, “adding to the happiness of a couple.”

While she was here she was asked to read the role of Kate in Brighton Beach Memoirs for Cordes. That was more an unexpected opportunity—real serendipity—than the careful planning of Deiboldt.

Meanwhile, Goldsmith has been working all over the country in regional venues. In Little Rock, Arkansas she connected with the Arkansas Reperatory and was cast in a black comedy called Windfall, about the lottery.

In Boulder, Colorado, where Goldsmith directed Mother, she met Peter Yarrow of ‘Peter, Paul and Mary’ the very popular musical trio of the late fifties and sixties.  Some may remember the song “Puff, the Magic Dragon” that generated rumors that it was about smoking pot. That almost seems naïve now.

“Peter took my face between his hands and kissed me on both sides and looked at me intensely. There seemed to be some kind of recognition, almost a blessing, without knowing.” Remarkably, Goldsmith does resemble the late singer both in stature
and appearance.

And, she can sing. She did Torch Song Trilogy in 2013 at the Human Race Theatre.

Goldsmith’s bearing is highly energetic and purposeful. She said she is working on an MFA at Point Park Conservatory of Performing Arts, A New York Equity organization
in Pittsburgh.

The New York native has fallen in love with the old industrial city. She cites the music and the food and the presence of eight or nine Equity theatres. In fact, it has become so appealing to her that she bought a house for herself there.

Dayton and The Human Race Theatre feel close, both geographically and emotionally. “Coming here is like a family working vacation,” she said. It’s home-like, with jobs to do and personalities to negotiate.

“Kate is proud of Stanley, her first born son. She never thought he would lose a lot of money in a poker game. She is more harsh with Eugene.” Goldsmith sees Kate as a collector, someone who provides for those who need to be in her family. Simon’s real life family did take in boarders, and he has said he remembers his mother’s tempestuous relationship with his father, who would show up and get into a fight with her and leave.

“Our audience will love Neil Simon,” predicts Kevin Moore, Artistic Producer of the Human Race Theatre. “When we build our season we always include an older play for comfort food. Those offerings are always the most selected by audience members who choose the smaller size subscriptions each year and are able to select from the entire season.” Moore said that as far as he knows no other established professional company has done this play here, although it has often been seen on high school, college, and community theatre stages.

Like Cordes and Goldsmith, he too sees the issues of unknown or little known relatives needing to live together as parallel to the contemporary issues of recent immigrants.

“Audiences are always intrigued by a sense of family. It is so much more fun to watch someone else’s dysfunction than our own,” notes Moore.

“We’ve put together our own combined family of actors, including Equity actors along with regional professionals and Wright State theatre students, even one high
school student.”

In addition to Eric Deiboldt as Eugene, and Lisa Ann Goldsmith as Kate, the cast includes Sonia Perez as Blanche (all are Equity actors).  Richard Buchanan playing Stanley, and Rory Sheridan as Jack are regional actors from Cincinnati. Katie Sinicki (as Nora) is a WSU student. In the role of Laurie is Julie Murphy, an Oakwood student, according to Tara Lail, Associate Artistic Producer.

“Casting was incredibly difficult,” Moore continued, as Tara, Marya, and I worked together to find the balance Marya envisioned. “Of course we’ve worked with Lisa Ann in Mame and Torch Song Trilogy. “She’s got the chops. She was a ferocious Lady Macbeth in 2002.”

“We had looked at Eric for Sweeney Todd. He wasn’t right for that show, but we certainly kept him in mind,” Moore recalls.

“As rehearsals proceed, we are really pleased to see our ‘family’ grow together,”
Lail said.

The Human Race Theatre production of Brighton Beach Memoirs by Neil Simon opens Apr. 6 p.m. at the Loft Theatre, 126 N. Main Street, Suite 300 in Dayton. Performances continue through Apr. 22. Visit HumanRaceTheatre.org for more information, a detailed schedule, and to purchase tickets online. Or call the box office at 937.228.3630.

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Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at JacquiTheobald@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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