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Simon says
The Collective Face looks back fondly with the comedy 'Brighton Beach Memoirs'
The gang's all here: Eugene (Jeremy Kole, front) and the rest of the Jerome family

In community theater, a certain amount of risk is always involved. You can do the coolest, most cutting-edge play in the world, or a time-tested classic, and even if your production is top-notch it's not considered a success if nobody comes to see it.

There are a few cash cow, no-brainers - Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals always pack ‘em in, Shakespeare if you get the right actors ... and comedies by Neil Simon.

David Poole won't come right out and say it, but his production of Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs, opening this week at Muse Arts Warehouse, is pretty much guaranteed to generate an audience.

Poole, who co-founded the Collective Face theater company two years ago, is a professor of theater at Savannah State University and has directed nearly all the Collective Face shows, including the 2010 production of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, one of the year's most moving - and successful - community theater productions.

Like Williams' dark drama, Simon's story is a "memory play," told by a narrator looking back through the haze of time.

The similarities end there. As a matter of fact, Brighton Beach Memoirs is another kettle of gefilte fish entirely.

"I was looking for something universal, something that would talk to people," Poole explains. "And this play spoke to me. Because it's set in the Depression, and we're in our economic straits right now.

"The other reason is that we have this very interesting community of Jewish patrons. A lot of our patrons happen to be Jewish. And this play is essentially about a Jewish family in the Depression. So this is a show for them, as well as us."

Also, he says, "it was time for us to do a comedy - we had been doing drama after drama after drama. And I was looking for a comedy that was sort of kitchen sink, family, and a crowd-pleaser. And, of course, Neil Simon is a household name."

Brighton Beach Memoirs was the first in a triad of semi-autobiographical Simon comedies, often referred to, collectively, as The Eugene Trilogy.

Matthew Broderick won the Tony Award in 1983 for his portrayal of Eugene Jerome, the story's 14-year-old narrator. He's part of an extended family living in Brooklyn in 1937, and he narrates - from his adult perspective - the day-to-day events inside his father's crowded house.

The Savannah production features 15-year-old Jeremy Kole, a student at St. Andrew's School, as Eugene.

"He's the one who gets blamed for everything," Kole says of his character. "He wants to be this big baseball player - or a writer - and he's mischievous. Although he gets blamed for more than he actually does."

Everywhere Eugene turns, says Kole, "there's another relative listening to what he's saying."

Which is tricky, because Master Jerome is also obsessed with girls. "How am I going to become a writer, if I don't know how to suffer?" he says in one of his many fourth-wall monologues. "Actually, I'd give up writing if I could see a naked girl while I was eating ice cream."

It's one awkward interaction after another with his parents, his older brother Stanley, Aunt Blanche and her two young daughters, Nora and Laurie.

"I'm putting all this down in my memoirs," Eugene tells them, "so if I grow up twisted and warped, the world will know why."

Kole, who just a week ago represented Georgia at the National Shakespeare Competition at Lincoln Center in New York City, has a lot of lines to memorize. "If you take a look at my grades," he laughs, "you can tell that I've been looking at the script during class."

He didn't win in New York, but the experience - he did a monologue from Hamlet and the Bard's Sonnet 138 - was thrilling. "That really has helped me determine that I do want to be an actor when I grow up," he says. "Of course, I'm still a sophomore and my mind could change. But I highly doubt that it will any time soon."

Next up on the Collective Face plate: A summer reading (title to be determined), followed by the long-delayed production of The Belle of Amherst, and something else that Poole says will be "massive."

Poole's group has been making a name for itself - and hasn't had to resort to Rodgers & Hammerstein yet.

"It's been actually better than I hoped," he says. "When we started, there was this flux of theater companies and production companies in Savannah, and all of a sudden everybody started crashing. We were like ‘There's no place to do anything any more.'"

The Collective Face had its biggest turnout yet for Brighton Beach Memoirs auditions.

"Every time we do something, there's more people," Poole says. "A couple walked into the Savannah Theatre recently and asked about Brighton Beach Memoirs. And the Savannah Theatre people called us about it, and sent them over here."

Brighton Beach Memoirs

Where: Muse Arts Warehouse, 703D Louisville Road

When: At 8 p.m. May 12-14, 19-21; at 3 p.m. May 14 and 21

Tickets: $15 public, $12 seniors and military, $10 students


Reservations: (912) 713-1137