What is the magic that takes a mildly diverting Broadway play and transforms it into a disappointingly dull Hollywood movie? An uncommon number of plays have been turned into films during the past year, and their adapters have achieved varying degrees of success at disguising their stagebound origins. But few have seemed as flat in their motion-picture form as ``Brighton Beach Memoirs,'' even though its credentials would lead you to expect a winner. It was written by Neil Simon from his own long-running hit; the director was Broadway veteran Gene Saks; and the cast includes Bob Dishy, whose mixture of wackiness and world-weariness make him perhaps the ideal Neil Simon actor.
``Brighton Beach Memoirs'' is the first installment in Simon's autobiographical trilogy about growing up absurd in Brooklyn, finding a measure of maturity and purpose in the Army, and finally hitting the road to Broadway fame. During its Brighton Beach phase, the playwright tells us, his odyssey was modest in terms of the adventures it presented - brother Stanley getting fired or Aunt Blanche getting asked for a date were big events in his ever-so-ordinary household.
But he already had a sense of direction, since he (or Eugene Jerome, as he's called here) already had a lively sense of story and language. Hence this ``Memoir'' often finds young Eugene commenting on the action as if he were even now a playwright taking conscious pleasure in narrative and incident, with a particular yen for oddities of\speech - as when he points out that his Brooklyn relatives invariably whisper certain unpleasant words, no matter how energetically they trumpet the rest of their gossip.
It is to Simon's credit that he hasn't juiced up his ``Memoirs'' with melodramatic incidents. The small events of everyday life can be dramatic enough when sensitively spotlighted, and Simon has the skill to make us care about Stanley's job, Aunt Blanche's bid for romance, father's financial worries, cousin Nora's chance to enter the show-biz world, and other situations on the same homely scale. Unfortunately, he also has the bad taste to dwell relentlessly on Eugene's teenage preoccupation with sex, hitting us with more puberty jokes than a trilogy of trilogies could comfortably contain.
And the whole show has been filmed so drably that its charms, which were low-key even on Broadway, come dangerously close to disappearing. The performances are passably good - and considerably better than that when Dishy gets into high gear, or Jonathan Silverman lets Eugene's full energy loose, or a solid pro like Steven Hill shows up in a small role.
But there's no flow to the story: It's just one incident after another, blandly photographed (by the talented John Bailey, of all people) and lifelessly edited. What should be the most touching scenes, as when brother Stanley leaves home after a misunderstanding, become throwaway moments in a throwaway story.
Although he gave the plot real momentum on the stage, director Saks has fudged and fuzzed things by translating it so listlessly to the screen.