Friday, January 22, 2016

A conversation with Rick Davis, the director of BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS, opening tonight at Desert Stages Theatre

bu Gil Benbrook

Neil Simon is one of the most prolific and beloved American playwrights. His "Eugene Trilogy" includes the hit plays Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound.  While the three plays tell the story of fictional character Eugene Jerome and his family, the plays are semi-autobiographical in nature focusing on Simon's early life growing up in Brooklyn; his years in the army; and ending with Jerome becoming a comedy writer for radio and tv.

Desert Stages Theatre presented Biloxi Blues two seasons ago, and Rick Davis, who played the hard-edged platoon leader Sergeant Merwin J. Toomey in that show, returns to direct Brighton Beach Memoirs for DST, which opens tonight.  Davis sat down to talk about his past, the show, and his experience directing it in this PHX Stages exclusive.

Rick Davis

Brighton Beach Memoirs is a fairly well known play, but for those who may not know it, what can you tell us that the play is about?

"Brighton Beach Memoirs, at its heart, is a play about family. The Jerome family, as introduced to us by Eugene, the youngest son of Jack and Kate, and brother to Stanley, have taken in Kate’s widowed sister, Blanche, and her two girls, Nora and Laurie.  It has been three years this way, and the story shows us the cracks that have formed in their relationships. Jack is working himself to death, and Stanley has lost his job. Kate and Blanche have a lifetime of unresolved issues. Nora wants to leave the nest, and Laurie wants to be left alone. It is Eugene who plays the host for us as we watch the inner workings of his family, during his early teens. It is a story of self discovery, and the onset of puberty. The tense, and desperate, bonds of love for family. And as the threat of World War Two grows in the background, these  seven New York  Jews struggle to survive in 1937, while their relatives in Europe suffer."

 Neil Simon is known for his signature flair for rapid-fire jokes and wisecracks, but this play also has a big heart at the center and some moments that might make people cry. How difficult is it to balance comedy and drama in directing a well-known play such as this to ensure they both land effectively?

"I guess the best answer to this is to not be too “heavy handed” on either end of this scale. The show never gets slapstick, or maudlin.  Neil Simon’s writing really does all the hard work for you. It’s there on the page. This is more of a giggle show than a laugh-riot show, and more of a sniffles and wet eyes story than a hand wringing weep-fest."

George Piccininni-Avery
Photo: Heather Butcher
In 2014 you acted at DST in Simon’s Biloxi Blues, which is Simon's follow up play to Brighton Beach Memoirs. Did you take anything that you learned from that experience to assist in your direction of this play?    

"Biloxi Blues was a great resource for me. I had a long time to observe an older Eugene, so I had a great image of him from that stage of his life. It lent an interesting perspective on his 'Origin Story.' Kind of a Lucas-y take on things. I think I just coined a phrase!"

What do you hope audiences will take away from the show?

"I hope the audience leaves with a sense of accomplishment at having survived all the trials that they, too, have just been a part of. A grin because their funny bone has been tickled. I want them to leave with that pleasant glow you feel when love, really does, triumph in the end. "

Did you encounter any difficulties in directing it? 

"I didn’t encounter any difficulties in directing this show, that I haven’t encountered directing any other show. I even think that because of Biloxi I was more attached to it."

It is also has a fairly small cast, with just seven actors. Does having such a small cast make it easier or harder to direct?

"The small cast made it so much easier to direct, for me personally, as it gave me time to spend time with all of them, both in and out of character. "
Heidi Carpenter
Photo: Heather Butcher

The show also includes several youth actors, including George Piccininni-Avery who plays the lead, Eugene. Do you have to change your direction process when working with younger, less experienced actors?

"I spend a lot of my 'directing' time with actors in George’s age group. I find the process is not really any different with adult actors, as I tend to treat everyone like adults. Or everyone like teenagers. Guess that depends on who you ask."

Do you have a favorite moment in the play?

"Honestly there isn’t one favorite moment in the play for me. There are many moments in it that I love. I know that sounds like a cop out, but It’s the truth."

Did you learn anything during rehearsals that made you change your original ideas of how to direct this play?

"I begin the rehearsal process with an idea of where I want to go, but I always want to see what the actors bring to the table. Sometimes their ideas are way better than mine."

Tell us a little about your past acting and directing experience?

"I’ve been a theatre actor, officially, since I was 12. My first role outside of a school setting was Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit at The Princeton Street Theatre in NJ. Since then I have done theatre in Pennsylvania, New York, Seattle, Los Angeles, and even a Shakespeare gig in Little Rock Arkansas. Little Rock was also my first experience teaching and directing teens. Arizona has, without a doubt, been my most productive period. I teach and direct with the Scottsdale Homeschool Theatre group, and have done more shows in 3 years, than I ever thought I would. And last year I had the pleasure of directing Footloose for DST’s Next Stage Theatre. Aaaagggggghhhhhh!!!  More teens!!!  But, seriously it was a blast. I got lucky enough to have some of the most talented kids around in that show."
photo: Wade Moran

Why did you choose this particular play to direct?

"I did not choose the play. The play, and DST chose me"

You've acted at many theatres across the Valley, including DST, Don Bluth Front Row Theatre and Southwest Shakespeare Company. What makes Desert Stages Theatre unique when compared to the other companies in town?

"What makes Desert Stages unique is the same thing that makes every other theatre unique. Every theatre I have ever worked in has been very much the same in some ways, and completely different in others. Each theatre has its own 'personality.' That personality is defined and shaped by things like, who the executive director is, or who the board is. What kinds of shows that are produced, and the kind of actors and tech crew that are hired all play into this uniqueness. DST is its own animal. There are 2 stages that are running shows at any one time. The Actors Café, where Brighton will be performing is a wonderfully intimate proscenium house. I have done several shows in this space, and absolutely love how many different places and environments I have seen it become. "

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