Neil Simon Festival returns to the Egyptian Theatre
When Peter Sham performs on the Egyptian Theatre stage next week, he will either be a father of a Jewish family in New York, or a flamboyant gay ex husband.
That’s because the Neil Simon Festival will leapfrog two productions — “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and “London Suite” — at the venue.
“Brighton Beach Memoirs” will run Aug. 17 and 19, at 8 p.m., and Aug. 21 at 6 p.m. “London Suite” will run on Aug. 18 and 20, at 8 p.m.
Both feature Simon’s crafty and well-placed humor along with some of his tender and poignant moments.
“Brighton Beach Memoirs,” which made its Broadway debut in 1983, is part of what is known as Simon’s “Eugene Trilogy” that also features “Biloxi Blues” and “Broadway Bound.”
The trilogy follows a character named Eugene Jerome, who is loosely based on Simon’s own accounts of his growing up in New York, joining the Army and becoming a playwright.
Sham, a theatre professor at Southern Utah University in Cedar City, portrays Eugene Jerome’s father Jack, a role that is based on Simon’s own father.
“London Suite,” which premiered in 1995, on the other hand, is similar to Simon’s early “Suite” plays — “Plaza Suite” and “California Suite” — and features four one-act scenes of guests of a London hotel.
Sham portrays two characters in this work — Sidney, a gay ex-husband to Diana, portrayed by Alyson King, and Dr. McMerlin, an Irish back doctor.
The actor said he enjoys exploring these roles.
“It’s a question of tapping into the heart and honesty of what the characters are saying, and while I don’t think about who has played these characters before, that, I think, is what makes acting great,” Sham said. “Everyone is different. Their different personalities and sensibilities transform Neil Simon’s writing every time out.
“I get to have some great gravitas and then some of the sweetest most touching moments on stage with Jack,” he said. “And in ‘London Suite,’ I have built a lovely relationship on stage with Alyson, who plays Diana. She’s a wonderful actress and it’s a lovely dance we have every night between Sidney — who is an aging, gay ex-husband of hers who needs help — and Diana, who helps him.”
Then there’s Dr. McMerlin.
“He’s an Irish kook who comes into the farcical madness at the end of ‘London Suite,’” Sham said. “Working with the Utah Shakespeare Festival for 12 years, has helped me be completely transformative.”
Sham said “Brighton Beach Memoirs” is one of the plays where Simon ascended into being a major playwright who wrote about the human condition.
“Yes, he is a master of one-liners and the funny gag through his TV work, but this play, if you identify with family life, is so spot on,” Sham said. “There is so much honesty that goes on in this play.”
One of the perks of portraying Jack is that Sham gets to act alongside his wife, Kirsten and his daughter Olivia, who play Jack’s wife Kate and niece Nora, respectively.
“What makes Neil Simon great is that he touches on traits that every father, mother, daughter and son share with one another,” Sham said. “He has a remarkable insight and the relationships in the plays are so universal and beautifully written.”
While Sham draws upon the sensibilities of being a father, himself, he also adds some characteristics of his late father.
“I do that especially when we talk about the War and ethnic aspect of these things,” Sham said. “One of my grandparents were from Italy, so I remember hearing those kinds of stories growing up.”
Sham even wears his father’s wedding ring in the play.
“When I look down and see it, I can feel his presence in the show and carry his weight around with me,” he said. “I think I’m naturally a combination of my dad and my two brothers. So, I do relate to that scene when we talk about relationships and girls, which is so hilarious that it makes the audience roar with laughter.”
Sham considers his and King’s segment in “London Suite” the heart of that production.
Unlike the other segments in the play, it’s pretty serious.
“It serves as the foundation of the show that makes the funny scenes work,” Sham said. “It allows for the farce that takes place in the next scene.”
Still, the trick, Sham said, is to excavate the roles and find the humor that exists in the characters.
“Even in the most dramatic of roles, there is humor,” he said. “That’s the humanity, and you know it’s there in Neil Simon’s work.”
The Egyptian Theatre, 328 Main St., will present the Neil Simon Festival from Aug. 17 through Aug. 21. The festival will run Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs” on Aug. 17 and 19, at 8 p.m., and Aug. 21, at 6 p.m. It will run Neil Simon’s “London Suite” on Aug. 18 and 20, at 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday tickets are $19 to $29. Tickets for shows on Friday through Sunday are $23 to $35. Tickets can be purchased by visiting http://www.parkcityshows.com.
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