Simon's "Brighton Beach Memoirs" superb community theater in Castro Valley and Sazio' s, a great dining experience as well!

The Chanticleer (Rooster) has something to crow about!

The Chanticleers Theatre in Castro Valley is producing an outstanding comedy/drama in Neil Simon’s heart-warming, funny and poignant tale of coming of age, Brighton Beach Memoirs”. Under the astute artistic direction of Jerry Johnson, this frequently staged story really comes alive, delivering an exceptionally memorable theatrical experience.

Neil Simon may have written “perfect comedies”, as “The Odd Couple” is frequently called; in fact, he may have written a plethora of perfect plays, but even the perfect playwright may not live the perfect life, as his five marriages attests. Neil Simon writes about relationships, he writes funny and poignant stories about family, love, personalities, and conflict. Beginning with “Come Blow Your Horn” in 1961, Simon has entertained us all with such great plays (including several turned into award winning movies) as “Barefoot in the Park”, “Sweet Charity”, “Plaza Suite”, “The Sunshine Boys”, “ and “Laughter on the 23rd Floor”. ”Three of his plays were about his life growing up, beginning with “Brighton Beach Memoirs”, “Biloxie Blues”, and “Broadway Bound”, respectfully called the B & B trilogy. In addition, in 1991, he wrote “Lost in Yonkers”, another story about two brothers growing up in hard times.

The cast selected for this production deliver a performance that will have to go down in my mind as one of the more memorable community theatre productions, certainly one that I highly recommend.

The story evolves around the family relationships and conflicts between a fourteen year old Eugene Morris Jerome, his older brother, Stanley, his father, Jack, and mother, Kate, and their mother’s sister, Blanche, and her two daughters, Laurie and Nora. This Jewish family lives in the lower-middleclass-neighborhood of Brighton Beach, New York where they are struggling daily just to survive. Blanche and her two daughters have come to live with Uncle Jack following Blanche’s husband’s untimely death, which left them penniless. Jack (Marty Nemko) and his wife, Kate (Barbara Nemko) portray a strong, loving and faithful Jewish family who have stretched their little withal into a lot more without, but have sacrificed without any hint of “conditional love”.

Jack Jerome works rigorously at two jobs in an attempt to make ends meet. He really couldn’t manage without his older son, Stanley (Breton Nicholson), contributing his weekly earnings (the entire $17 a week). Kate keeps hearth and home together, making sure meals are prepared, household chores are done, via a bullying sort of love and endless nagging, as she worries about and criticizes her brood. She continually nurse-maids her sister’s daughter, Laurie (Caitlin Lushington), who supposedly is debilitated by a “heart flutter”. Nora (Michelle Michelbook) is a precocious 15 year old, who through her dancing has attracted the attention of a Broadway producer and absolutely “must go to the auditions” for a new Broadway show that is forming for a New York debut, or “her whole life will be ruined”. Sound typical of a teen-ager? Aunt Blanche (Mary Lasack), still financially in shock following her husband’s death several years earlier, never had the opportunity to solve problems or make decisions on her own, as her husband made them all for her. Consequently, she now depends heavily on Jack to make the decisions for her and her daughters.

Young Eugene (Alex Feldman) wants to grow up and play for the New York Yankees. He is coming of age and as such has just discovered that girls have breasts and yearns constantly to experience more about this new reality. His lust for and love/hate relationship with his cousin Nora becomes an ongoing gag serving up a ton of “Borscht Belt” one-liners, for which Simon is famous. Eugene, like most teenagers, feels he is his mother’s slave, having to suffer the indignity of running multiple errands daily to the local green-grocer. His mother rationalizes the multiple errands with statements such as “heaven forbid we should have a fire and that extra pound of butter would go to waste!”

When Jack becomes ill, the financial noose becomes even tighter. Serious miscalculations are made by certain family members, contributing even more weight to the ever-present financial and social issues that prevail in the household. But Simon brings the family through its trials and tribulations as an even stronger family unit with his brilliantly written humor and evocative poignancy.

While the entire cast is great, it is young Alex Feldman (Eugene) who literally steals the show. He is really the narrator of the story and maintains a stage presence and ease and confidence that belie his age and lack of acting experience.

Critics attributed much of the success of Brighton Beach Memoirs to Simon's new-found sophistication. Before this play, Simon had a long career of successful plays that were either comic or serious. His previous attempts to combine the two styles rarely impressed critics or audiences. Critics praised Brighton Beach for its deft characterizations and meaningful humor. Some attribute this to the fact that Simon knew his material well. Though not strictly autobiographical, Simon based the play on his memories of growing up in New York City in the years just before World War II.

This is a terrific production that is well worth a trip from just about anywhere in the Bay Area. Brighton Beach Memoirs” plays one more weekend, this coming Friday and Saturday (May 5th, 6th) at 8 p.m., with a matinee on Sunday (May 7th) in the Chanticleers Theatre at 3683 Quail Avenue in Castro Valley, just a short drive from the junction of Highways 580 and 238 at Castro Valley Boulevard via Lake Chabot Road in Castro Valley. Call (510) 733-5483 for reservations or additional information. Tickets are a very reasonable $11 to $13 per person. There is plenty of free public parking as the theatre located next to a city park.

If you enjoy a dinner and theatre outing, then I would also strongly recommend dinner in the Sazio Ristorante Italiano in Castro Valley at 20400 Lake Chabot Road. I’ve known of this family restaurant for years and can attest to its superior cuisine under the artful preparation of their chef. My wife, Karen, and I took our neighbors, Denis and Chris with us and were served a dinner that brought raves from everyone present. Everyone in our party ordered fish dishes and they were beyond description, so tender and delicious. The vegetables were crisp and perfectly prepared as were the salads and soup. I think my homemade clam chowder, which was “full” of freshly prepared clams, was one of the best I have ever eaten and my calamari alla sazio left me wanting more! This is a full menu restaurant with a superb choice of pasta, soups, meat, fish and chicken dishes. The food is very reasonably priced, certainly for the high quality and outstanding attentive service.

They were very attentive to our time, to make sure that we got out of the restaurant in plenty of time to drive to the theater, making this dining experience in this restaurant one we will want to enjoy again, very soon! Call and ask for Antonio at (510) 733-0788 to answer questions, check days and hours of operation or to make reservations. From the outside this restaurant is not much for show, but it is inside where the award-winning performance truly takes place. Magnifico! Salute Sazio!