Curtains: Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs at Starlight Community Theater in Anthem

Categories: Curtains

Eugene_Stan_Rose_edited.jpg
Patty Kaufman, itsUphoto
From left to right: Jeff Bennett, Gig Kyriazi, Maria Hatzigeorgalis, and John Rose play the plucky Jerome family in Brighton Beach Memoirs

Starlight Community Theater is in its fourth season in Anthem, a planned community in nooooorth Phoenix. As in 39 thousand north. As in just this side of New River. Those are not "Anthem is so far away" jokes -- we're merely making sure that, if you head on up there, you know what you're getting into. Door-to-door, it's a solid 45 minutes from CenPho in off-peak traffic, and if you're coming from, say, the southeast Valley, it's roughly the equivalent of someone in Glendale going out to the Ren Faire.

But if you need to clear your head with a little day trip, Anthem is not a bad one. There are some swell desert and mountain vistas between here and there. They have the prettiest outlet mall I've ever seen, where there's also a farmers' market from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. the first Saturday of each month through May 2. (The theater is in the outlets -- which is why I mention them -- and please note that west is at the top of that map.) So take your time and enjoy the excursion. 

For a theater that seats you on folding chairs in a former clothing store, Starlight is doing a pretty good job. The acoustics are quite good (the actors' vocal strength is a key part of that, too), everyone's super-friendly, and you can buy a coffee or water in the lobby and enjoy some kickass local doughnuts for which donations are accepted.

The cast of Brighton (one of Neil Simon's semiautobiographical, angst-ridden dramedies) is quietly impressive and believable. They really nailed the complex relationships of the extended Brooklyn family they portrayed.

Eighth-grader Jeffrey Bennett is a standout as Eugene, a budding author who is the play's narrator and protagonist. With charming, natural wit and humor, he establishes a comfortable rapport with the audience and keeps us wrapped up in the unfolding saga of simple pleasures and mundane obstacles he and his relatives face during one week in 1937.

The set design, by director Barbara L. Surloff, includes a vast faux-cobblestone courtyard downstage of the family's house. It's a place where characters enter and exit, Eugene delivers soliloquies, and a lot of two-person scenes take place, and it's at least ten feet deeper than the action requires.

I suspect that Starlight's current collection of lighting instruments, combined with the room's architecture, which features a lovely square pillar right in the middle, makes other options even less sensible. Once the show began, I have to say that Surloff's cast made it feel quite intimate even in the scenes set far upstage, and I didn't think about that moat of empty space ever again.

Some of the set construction and decoration verges on tacky, but, again, that all faded into the background during the action -- except for two unfortunate elements. One is an attempt to disguise the pillar as a tree by covering it in Pergo-type flooring and tacking tulle to the ceiling. Ow.

A more serious problem is the tiny upstairs bedroom that represents both the room Eugene shares with his brother and the bedroom of their teenage girl cousins. The young actors wind up bustling about (in nowhere near darkness) re-covering the beds and night table between scenes, making virtually no visible difference in the room's appearance, and being hugely distracting while other scenes simultaneously take place elsewhere on the set. I wanted to run up there and tear the crocheted afghans out of their hands.

I'm not crazy about this script, though it beats most of Simon's comedies. People spend a lot more of Act II talking about their feelings (and just talking) than you'd expect in this kind of show. But it's a fortuitous choice for the current theater season: The characters bite and scratch to hold on to multiple crappy jobs, worry about a better future for the kids, fret about the war, and ultimately buckle down and take care of each other. Just like the rest of us these days. Even in Anthem.

Brighton Beach Memoirs runs through Sunday, February 15, at Starlight Community Theater in suite 315 of the Outlets at Anthem, 4250 West Anthem Way. Adult tickets are $15; call 623-566-7991 for reservations or buy tickets here at a discount via PayPal.


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