Neil Simon's semi-autobiographical Brighton Beach Memoirs is the first of three plays that tell the story of Eugene Jerome, a baseball loving New Yorker who wants to be a writer, if he doesn't get signed by the Yankees first. He's also going through puberty and dealing with an onslaught of unfamiliar feelings and sexual urges. Act Inc. gets the details right, and delivers them with familial warmth and optimism in a memorable production filled with strong performances. 

Set in 1937, the show is a nostalgia-filled coming-of-age tale and a tribute to family unity that doesn't shy away from the harsh realities of life. Eugene, his father, mother, and brother have taken in Eugene's widowed aunt and her two daughters. Because the family is not wealthy, his father works two jobs and, though they still struggle to put food on the table, they make do. 

Eugene's older brother Stanley is having troubles at work, losing money, and considering joining the army. His cousin Nora wants to drop out of high school to audition for a Broadway show, and, much to the consternation of Eugene's mother, his aunt is considering dating an Irish Catholic. After all this stress, Eugene's father suffers a heart attack and the family's sense of security is put to the test. 

Zac O'Keefe is thoroughly engaging as Eugene, his monologues are filled with hope, humor and ever-changing moods, but delivered with a light, humorous touch. Eugene is filled with optimism, but also a growing understanding of the challenges and stress of growing up. Through the course of the play, O'Keefe adroitly handles the character's many mood swings and realizations with clearly motivated reactions. 

Kimberly Sansone radiates with warmth, caring, and a sharp wit as Eugene's mother Kate. She's at times quick to judge others, but fiercely protective of her family, particularly her sister Blanche, a wonderful turn by Susan Kopp. Chuck Brinkley shows the wisdom of Solomon and patience of Job as the hard-working father, and Evan Fornachon gives Stanley a sympathetic voice and appealing personality, while Natalie Krivokuca, as the rebellious Nora, and Mary Pat Dailey, as the bookish Laurie, are charming and engaging.

The characters in Brighton Beach Memoirs, are filled with depth and human conflict while remaining memorably distinct. Director Emily Jones guides the cast with a clear sense of the story arc and necessary motivation, keeping the show moving at a crisp pace and developing a natural ebb and flow that complements Simon's delightful script. 

Family relationships are explored honestly and thoughtfully, reflecting real life -- we don't always like our family, but we love and support them as best we can. The efficient stage, coordinated by Jason Flannery, is a bit crowded, enabling us to see into the family's apartment in a way that underscores the tension likely to arise when so many people live in a small space. Wesley Jenkins' costumes and Flannery's properties reflect the period and the family's financial situation in an understated fashion. Moments are emphasized by the lighting and sound design by Michael and Zoe Sullivan, respectively. These small touches help bridge any gaps between the audience and the family, an important consideration in a story set before most audience members were born. 

Simon's powerful coming-of-age trilogy, though set in a different era, explores themes that resonate deeply with contemporary audiences. Growing up presents universal questions and personal challenges and the cast taps into this commonality with great success. 

We see the Stress in Brinkley's face, hear the concern and mothering in Sansone's voice, understand Fornachon's stubborn pride, and feel sympathy for Kopp and her daughters. Most importantly, we gladly follow O'Keefe and share in the joys and disappointments as his character humorously navigates puberty while dreaming of a glorious future.

As much as this is a story about Eugene, Simon's play is also a warm tribute to family, and the strength and values we learn from those closest to our hearts. The result is an authentically warm and engaging production that's filled with genuine affection. Brighton Beach Memoirs running through June 26, 2016 at Act Inc.

 

 

Some stories just never make it into the American history books, either because there's simply not time or space or because the books are written by committees with agendas that blot truth. Free State of Jones tells such a story of Newton Knight of Jones County, Mississippi, during and after the Civil War.

Knight represents factions during that bloody conflict--poor folk, both men and women, whites and blacks--who were tired of fighting for plantation owners, made rich off the backs of slaves. The small farmers were tired of being robbed of all they had to finance and feed that war. They were tired of defending the slave-owning society to support the cotton culture. One soldier avers that he's not fighting for cotton but for honor.

Knight deserted his post as a hospital worker and fled to a swamp already inhabited by men of color. One, self-named Moses (played by Mahershala Ali) becomes Knight's ally, as does a house slave played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw ("Belle"), who becomes Knight's paramour. Knight, played so well without ego by Matthew McConaughey, is a gentle man: the way he calms and caresses children shows this. Knight is a natural leader, magnetically drawing his kind. 

Director Gary Ross (who wrote Seabiscuit) continues Knight's story post-war instead of ending of a boffo battle. Ross co-wrote the script with Leonard Hartman and extended it intelligently into the 1950s in a trial of miscegenation for Knight's descendant.

What does not play so true is the production value of Free State of Jones. So often the acting and enacting are wooden, the make-up a few smears of mud on a face. The film could have used subtitles, for the men's mumbled Southern accents are muddy, too. 

Free State of Jones lays out a morsel of history too often consigned to the swamps of Mississippi.

 

If you like vampires, blood, pointy teeth, send-ups, and Dr. Freud, you're gonna clap for Therapy for a Vampire. However, if you've avoided all things undead, including every vampire movie ever made plus Bram Stoker's oeuvre, you're going to have a nice little nap while your vampire-delighted friend chortles.

Therapy for a Vampire makes fun of vampires, but you have to love them enough to laugh at them. Otherwise, you have to have elastic eyes that roll well. 

Here's the concept: The year is '32, the place is somewhere near Vienna, the doctor is Sigmund Freud. He has hired an artist, Viktor Huma, to paint his dreams, that is, to illustrate his subconscious. Huma has also been painting his mistress, Lucy, but the dark-haired, bun-sporting, beige-betrousered fräulein appears on his canvas as a fantasy model with curling blonde hair and wearing a coral dress. One of Dr. Freud's new patients is an old guy, a really old count, Geza von Kozsnom. Geza has found that he has nothing left to discover, no thirst for life. Plus, his countess is a demanding woman, who dismisses his bottles of blood -- she wants her neck-piercings fresh. So the good doctor suggests that Geza hire an artist to paint her portrait, since she cannot see herself and since, as he says, he's no good at reflection.

If you get that joke, that pun, you will get Therapy for a Vampire. You will giggle every time the blustery vampire or the vain countess tries the mirror or moves real quick. You will delight in the apposition presented by the real Lucy and the fantasy Lucy. You will slap your knee at the portrayal of Sigmund Freud in his chair, taking notes fast before midnight, as the vampire lies upon the carpeted couch. Otherwise, you will take a nap on your own couch. Now playing at Landmarks' Tivoli Theatre.

 

 

There's so much to love in this lesson from the deep. There's the grumpus octupus with seven arms, so, a septipus. There's a scaredy-cat beluga and a brace of Cockney sea lions. And then there's the temporarily orphaned Dory herself, a blue tang fish with memory issues, short-term. 

Dory swims in from 2003's Finding Nemo, Pixar's masterpiece. In that film about parenting, Nemo was often outflanked by the sidekick Dory, voiced so charmingly then as now by Ellen DeGeneres.

Finding Dory is set a year after Finding Nemo, but it flashes back to Dory's little fishhood, wherein her care-full parents (voiced by Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy) help her to accommodate her issues with memory. They remind her to remain calm, to think, to focus, to ask for help. Having swum off on her own, she's once again searching for them. Her friends, Martin (voiced by Albert Brooks) and Nemo (Hayden Rolence) are the sidekicks this time, but they do not pull the focus that Dory did in their film.

Coming closer to focus-pulling are the voices of Ty Burrell as the beluga, Idris Elba and Dominic West as the sea lions, and Kaitlin Olson as a near-sighted shark. Pulling most of all is Hank the octopus, voiced by Ed O'Neill; he's chameleon-like as well as funnily-drawn, especially when splatted against a glass surface, suckers first.

Finding Dory teaches lessons about marine life but also about disabilities, such as autism. Dory learned how to live with her disability, and she serves as an example to Nemo and Marlin: in one scene, they advise each other to "think like Dory." 

Finding Dory is delightful, perfect waterworks for the beginning of summer for children and adults. It's and a good sequel in the style of the Toy Story franchise. By the way, everything ends swimmingly.

 

Director Victor Kanefsky's documentary Art Bastard profiles contemporary, anti-establishment artist Robert "Bob" Cenedella, born in 1940. In so doing, the film offers a provocative profile of the art world, primarily because, as Bob says, "There are no words to describe my feelings. I despised it." The film's title Art Bastard is both literal and metaphoric. 

Bob Cenedella learned at six years of age that Robert, Sr., his alcoholic mother's husband, was not his actual father. He was Russell Speirs, Colgate University professor, but Bob says the two of them didn't amount to one real father. Though expelled from high school (a great story), at the Art Students League of New York, Bob found his perfect teacher: George Grosz. A refugee from Nazi Germany, Grosz encouraged Bob to "think with your hand," and Bob translated New York's energy and teeming masses into paintings crowded with discord.

And yet in Bob's professional life, the art community rejected or marginalized him, not because Bob lacked talent but due to his satirical approach to icons of American culture. For example, in a response to civil rights protests, he put dogs' heads on policemen and policemen's heads on dogs. He made Nixon and LBJ dartboards. For his 1965 "Yes Art" show Bob gave out Green Stamps, mocked Warhol and pop art, and then didn't paint for ten years. But he decided "not to be a tragic figure," and in 1985 painted a Hitler orchestra conductor with audience members also sporting Hitler moustaches. And then Saatchi and Saatchi took Bob's painting of Santa Claus on a cross out of their 1988 one-man show for Cenedella. Regarding the art world's taste for mediocrity, Bob comments, "It's not what they do show but what they don't show that bothers me."

Unrepentant today, Bob asserts that when he painted the New York stock exchange in 1986, he found it nice to deal with "honest crooks rather than the kind I deal with in the art world." Director Kanefsky inserts interview footage of Bob's sister and son (among others), archival photographs and video footage sufficient to add context to Bob's vivid, colorful work. It is amply represented with Bob's own informative commentary. The music, however, is uneven, sometimes nicely interpretive and, at other times, loud and intrusive. Described as a pugnacious character, Bob is refreshing, cutting through cultural hypocrisy. Bob Cenedella brings all the drama necessary to make Art Bastard a compelling portrait. The end credits list the paintings shown in the film, identifying the artists and the museums. What a great idea! At Landmark's Tivoli Theatre.

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