Gallery Players to Open 2015-16 Season with
Brighton Beach Memoirs
Gallery Players 2015-16 season opens October 17 at 8 pm with Brighton Beach Memoirs, the semi-autobiographical play from Neil Simon, documenting his family’s struggles and his own misadventures as a young boy in 1937 Brooklyn.
The play reunites several cast members with director Mark Mann (who most recently directed Gallery Players’ Fiddler on the Roof and The Producers). Neil Kalef, a freshman at Columbus Torah Academy, leads the cast as protagonist Eugene, and joins former Fiddler on the Roof co-stars Susan Gellman and Rick Holt, who play his aunt and father, Blanche and Jack, respectively. Felise Chernoff as Eugene’s mother, Kate, Phil Cunningham as Eugene’s older brother, Stanley, Jenn Geiger as Eugene’s cousin, Nora, and Jenna Rodier as Nora’s sister, Laurie, round out the cast.
Starring as the lead, Eugene, is Neil Kalef, who performed in last fall’s Korczak’s Children. He enjoys stretching his acting skills and learning from his director and the small, tight-knit cast. “It feels like my own Jewish family,” said Kalef, who finds his character easy to relate to.
“Eugene is really funny. I can relate to him a lot because he’s also a teenager and we’re both growing up in Jewish families.” But there are some clear distinctions, he added. “I’m learning a lot from Mark Mann. He’s a great director and has really helped me to enhance my performance and make it more real. Because Eugene is more of a smart aleck and talks back a lot. I don’t like to think of myself as that kind of a person. But it’s fun to act way out there.”
Susan Gellman, who plays timid Aunt Blanche, also enjoys the learning process in playing a character that is foreign to her. “Blanche is very different from the kind of parts I usually play, which are comical character parts, like ‘Hold Me-Touch Me’ in The Producers.” Gellman added, “It’s a real stretch for me, but I really am enjoying it because I trust my director. He has his vision and he knows how to get actors to where they need to be. He helps me and challenges me, and it’s really a wonderful opportunity for me to learn.”
With its pre-World War II Brooklyn setting, the play is a family dramedy invoking traditional values. But no matter whether it’s 1937 or 2015, some things are universal, Gellman pointed out. “Strong Jewish family relationships and values haven’t changed,” she explained. The family’s unyielding loyalty is expressed as they tacitly worry about family trapped overseas in pre-Holocaust Europe.
“One thing that’s barely mentioned but that hovers over the entire play, is the fact of all the Jews trapped in Europe and wanting to get out. That does get mentioned, but they don’t talk about it much. It’s the shadow cast over all their problems. They bicker and bicker over little things, but when it comes to what would this poor family, already tightly packed into a small house, do if a dozen relatives show up from Europe? That’s no problem at all, because it’s too important. It shows the value of family even when there’s disagreement and trouble. This family is incredibly loyal to each other and even to distant family members they’ve never met. And I don’t think that has changed. That’s still a Jewish value today.”
Felise Chernoff, who plays Eugene’s mother, Kate, agreed. “The world today is not so different from the world of yesterday. Today, people are struggling to put food on the table and we have genocidal wars going in the Middle East. And there the Jeromes are in 1937 Brooklyn, trying to figure out how to feed their family and pay the rent, with war looming in the distance. It’s a different era, but I’m not really seeing a whole lot changing,” she explained.
Gellman and Chernoff play sisters Blanche and Kate, with Chernoff playing the older sister Kate to Gellman’s more submissive Blanche. While neither actress has a sister, the roles are familiar for them both. “A lot of what Kate and Blanche say is like listening to my mom and her sisters when I was growing up. The rhythm and cadence of their speech, it’s like, ‘Wow, I’ve heard this before,’” said Chernoff of her Jewish family growing up.
She thinks audiences will also find a lot to relate to on the stage. “It’s like comfort food. It’s familiar and comfortable. It was a simpler time. Kids were kids. You weren’t fighting over the TV, and we weren’t all buried in our phones or on the computer. It’s a nice bit of nostalgia. People are going to feel good watching this.”
A moment that is not so comfortable for Chernoff is when she has to yell at her on-stage sister. But Director Mark Mann, who brings a strong familiarity with Neil Simon’s work, having directed Gallery Players’ Lost in Yonkers in 2011, helped her push past her own anxiety with such strong feelings.
Chernoff, who is working with Mann and Gallery Players for the first time in Brighton Beach Memoirs, recalled Mann’s suggestion: “‘You need to just let it rip,’ he said. ‘It seems like Felise is holding you back and, remember, you’re Kate now, and she’s just completely going off.’ I realized he was right. I may do a bit of yelling in raising my family, but I try very hard not to do that. So I have to figure out how to put that aside and just let loose,” Chernoff said.
Rick Holt, who has worked with Mark Mann in all three of the Gallery Players productions in which he was performed (Lost in Yonkers, Fiddler on the Roof, and The Producers), is enjoying the reunion in his role as patriarch, Jack. “In a Mark Mann show, you’re getting ‘Theater 301’, ‘401,’ ‘501,’ and graduate school, all in one production, so I pay close attention. I’m learning ‘don’t try to be funny, don’t try to be angry or sad.’ The challenge is to be authentic; just be real and in the moment, and the emotions and comedy will be there.”
“What makes it work is a strong, talented cast; we started to gel and get the ‘feel’ of the show at the very first read-through,” Holt added. “What’s fun is building characters together and finding connections. We’re becoming an imperfect family—the most interesting kind—as Neil Simon reminds us again that comedy and tragedy are two sides of the same coin.”
“It’s about dealing with stress while holding onto faith and hope, and finding that love and forgiveness matter most. Everyone can relate to that,” he said.
Brighton Beach Memoirs will run October 17-November 1. New for the 2015-16 season is a streamlined online ticket ordering process in which you can order tickets online to select your seats, and even print your tickets at home! For specific showtimes and to purchase tickets, visit www.jccgalleryplayers.org or call 614-231-2731.
Gallery Players is underwritten by the Lenore Schottenstein and Community Jewish Arts Fund of the Columbus Jewish Foundation