From Writer/Director Brian Brems
Beneath The Neon Lights is a play about choices – the ones you made, and the ones you didn’t. Its setting is a New Jersey shore bar, a hangout for locals on the boardwalk. Over the winter holidays, a group of friends gather to celebrate New Year’s Eve. But, it’s not New Year’s Eve – it’s a few days before. That was the best they could do, when it all worked for everyone. That’s another thing the show is about: compromise. When you should make it. When you shouldn’t. The characters in Beneath The Neon Lights have largely become who they wanted to be, but the choices they’ve made, the compromises they’ve made, weigh them down. They can’t help but wonder what might have been had they done this, chosen that, gone another way.
The genesis of this story goes back to 2011, when I wrote and directed a show called The Age of Fiberglass, about young people exiting college, and finding out that what they thought they had been promised – a job, a house, fulfillment, a twenty-first century American Dream – wasn’t there. The only thing they got was a boatload of debt that threatened to drown them all. During that production, I found a strong thematic connection between the show and Bruce Springsteen’s album Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978). This new show returns to the same narrative ground as The Age of Fiberglass, and in turn, is heavily inspired by Springsteen’s very next album, 1980’s The River. Beneath The Neon Lights is not a literal sequel to that earlier show, with the same characters a few years later, but a new story that picks up, thematically at least, where it left off. People like those in The Age of Fiberglass might find themselves in a bar like the one in Beneath The Neon Lights, a few nights before New Year’s Eve.
The title of the show, Beneath The Neon Lights, is lifted from a lyric to a track from The River called “Out in the Street.” Many of Springsteen’s songs, and specifically those from The River, tell stories. “Out in the Street” spins one about characters who work themselves nearly to death during the day, in the factories of a bygone era of American manufacturing dominance, only to live for the joy and possibility that opens up once the factory gates close behind them. Theirs is a world of night, when the hard life of work they are trapped in falls away, and they can forget their troubles until the sun comes up again. The chorus, which is a rousing call by the singer to “Meet me out in the street,” serves to pull the downhearted, the weather-beaten, the defeated, out to a place of life and joy.
When I write this kind of story, about characters who seem roughly my age, roughly my socioeconomic status, and roughly concerned with things that matter to me, I get the question: which one is you? Well, the answer to that is, they’re all me. And yet, none of them are. When I wrote The Age of Fiberglass, it was about recent college graduates who didn’t find jobs when they left, and had mountains of debt; neither of those applied to me. I’ve been very fortunate. But there was a lyric in “The Promise,” a Springsteen song that came to be very important to Fiberglass as a production, that goes like this: “Inside I felt like I was carrying the broken spirits of all the other ones who lost.” I didn’t have those experiences, but I knew them, because I had seen them secondhand. I felt responsible, like I could give voice to those things that people I knew were thinking and feeling. Like I could take their doubts, their resentments, their despair, and put it on the stage. The temptation might be there for others to look into what they see in Beneath The Neon Lights and think they see me there. They’re right, and they’re wrong, all at the same time.
I wanted to write Beneath The Neon Lights because I’ve been working a lot lately in a representational, abstract mode, where the world is exaggerated, heightened, and overtly stylized. That was true of the Martin Scorsese-directs-Anchorman style of G36, G36: The Legend of Jack Gaines, the high-wire political satire and rapid-fire mouthfuls of dialogue of An Enemy of the People, and 2016’s Coen Brothers-esque farce/nightmare, Talkin’ Okaloosa County Blues. I’ve spent a lot of time in the head, turning my work into something analytical, taking on issues and ideas that I thought mattered. For this one, I wanted to go back to the heart. I wanted to emphasize the inner emotional lives of ordinary characters in ordinary situations, and elevate those everyday struggles. I wanted to find the humor and the sadness in the small glance, the recognition of people who know each other well, and the things the characters don’t say. In a lot of my recent work, characters’ lives have been interrupted by the events of the show, disrupting them and sending them on a collision course with a radically redefined vision of themselves. Here, the show is the characters’ lives, plain, simple, unadulterated.
Whenever I write and/or direct a show, music is a key part of my process for developing ideas. That’s certainly true of this one, where Springsteen and The River get a front row seat to the action. I really began to reckon with the power of The River album in 2016, when my wife and I attended three separate Springsteen shows, where he played the entirety of the twenty-song album in order every night. Its thematic unity, broken up into small narratives, really began to sit with me the more I listened to the record. Its music, as the author conceived of it, was broken up into two basic categories – there were the ballads, the darker, slower songs about people who find themselves alone, sometimes in a crowd, sometimes in a car at night, all living at the margins of things; then, there were the rockers, which he thought of as the music those loners would listen to in the bars they haunted at night – they told upbeat, fun stories about finding joy in community.