I have to admit up front, I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for dear old Neil Simon. I know he’s an easy punching bag to take a swipe at for a lot of “serious” theater people. But if you entered the world of theater, as I did, through a community theater, the man’s work was everywhere. As a young playwright, a lot of what I learned about structure, and humor, I learned from Neil Simon. But I also learned a lot about character. Because in Simon’s best plays, underneath all the laughter, there’s hard bedrock of pain and longing that, when it bursts out, as it always does, can take your breath away. The man loves his jokes, but he also loves Chekhov, and the truth.
Not to mention, the man has one more Drama Desk Award, one more Outer Critics Circle Award, one more New York Drama Critics Circle Award, six more Writers Guild Awards, two more Emmy Awards, three more Tony Awards, four more Oscar nominations, and one more Pulitzer Prize than I do (or anyone else I know does). All of which makes it seem kind of silly that I sometimes feel the need to apologize for liking the guy.
Still, the plays aren’t all gems. Some are noble but failed experiments. (God’s Favorite, The Gingerbread Lady, The Good Doctor, anyone?) Others are merely joke factories, cranking one punchline out after another on a seemingly tireless assembly line—relentlessly, hilariously funny, but you forget them the second they’re over. But most of Simon’s plays, you don’t have to be the least bit embarrassed for liking. Broadway Bound is a Neil Simon play you don’t have to feel embarrassed about. And it’s getting a great production by Theater Or right now over at the Sabes Jewish Community Center.
|broadway bound, presented through october 31 at the sabes jcc. for information and tickets ($17), see sabesjcc.org|
Broadway Bound is the final play of Simon’s autobiographical “Eugene trilogy” (which started with Brighton Beach Memoirs and continued with Biloxi Blues). You don’t need to have seen or read the other two plays to understand what’s going on in Broadway Bound. Like all good Simon plays, it stands on its own.
Eugene Jerome (Mark Benzel) and his older brother Stanley (James Doyle) are young men still living at home in the post-World War II Brighton Beach neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. The two brothers are working together as a team, struggling to break into the comedy writing business. Their mother Kate (Tina Sigel) keeps the homestead running while everyone else comes and goes—the boys’ grandfather, Kate’s father Ben (Mercer Hill); their aunt, Kate’s sister Blanche (Andrea Leap); and their father, Kate’s largely absent husband Jack (Matt Greseth). At the same time Eugene and Stanley are seeing their careers take off, their parents’ marriage is crumbling. The family comedy and family drama collide when the sons use the situation at home as fodder for their first big break in radio, an experimental comedy showcase to develop new writers. Some family members don’t get the joke, and other’s don’t think it’s right that the joke is at their expense.
Broadway Bound offers the best of both worlds. There are generous helpings of character-based comedy due to the family interrelationships. There is also plenty of random joking as the brothers grapple with the impending deadline for their first comedy writing sample. Because we have gotten to know and like all these characters for making us smile, when the subject turns to the unraveling of Kate’s marriage, the drama lands with that much more force, and the characters show off sides the audience hadn’t guessed at before. In lesser hands, Simon’s pivoting from laughs to lacerating confrontations might come off as unwieldy, or even as two completely different plays that couldn’t find a way to get along on the same stage. But director Todd Bruse leads his strong ensemble of actors nimbly through minefield. One minute, the spectators find themselves chuckling, then before they know it they find themselves in the middle of a dramatic showdown. Real life isn’t all laughter or tears, and sometimes things are funny right up until the moment they suddenly aren’t anymore. Advance warning is a luxury few of us get.
Thought it almost seems wrong to single anyone out of the cast for special mention, I have to say just a few words about Tina Sigel as Kate. Sigel’s character may at first seem like the typical Jewish mother, but as Kate must navigate her way through her roles not just as mother, but sister, daughter, and wife, the audience gets a fully realized portrait of a fascinating, three-dimensional woman. Mark Benzel as Eugene may be the genial comic narrator of Broadway Bound, but Sigel’s Kate is the center of the play, the axis around which the rest of this universe revolves.
Whether it’s a guiding obsession or something the man puts off for years, sooner or later every male writer writes about the first woman in his life, his mother. It’s frequently a telling portrait, saying as much about the artist as it does about the subject. Simon obviously loved his mother a great deal. Kate is no saint, and she’s not without her rough edges, but you can’t help but admire the woman, and Sigel’s performance is a big part of that. Matt Greseth’s Jack is also a study in contrasts. Though Simon’s sympathies are clearly with Kate, he still allows Jack to say his piece. The audience may not agree with Jack’s justifications for pulling away more and more from his wife and family, but thanks to Simon’s work with Jack on the page, and Greseth’s performance, the husband with the wandering eye (and heart) isn’t an easy villain. You may not like him, but you grow to understand him.
It’s interesting that Erica Zaffarano’s sprawling two-level set allows us to see only Eugene and Stanley’s bedrooms up above and behind the family living and dining room areas on the main floor. This is dictated by the script, of course. That’s where the action is as they brainstorm their comedy sketches. But when Jack and Kate, and grandpa Ben, head upstairs to rest, they all walk off into the void. Seems no matter how old a child gets, there are some things about the adults who came before him which he will never know.
If you like a little comedy with your drama, Broadway Bound has Mark Benzel and James Doyle trying to concoct a winning idea full of laughs with Mercer Hill as their grandpa who is both an “everyman” critic and unintentional source of material for their act. If you like a little drama with your comedy, Broadway Bound has Tina Sigel and Matt Greseth trying to save a marriage that’s on life support. It’s not a perfect script, but it’s as close to perfect as a lot of Neil Simon’s later work gets. Broadway Bound is a story Simon wasn’t ready to tell when he was younger. This is a story that has benefited from age and wisdom and distance. Simon’s at the top of his game, and with the crew at Theater Or, he’s got a group of artists who can meet him at his level and take it to the next one. This isn’t the Simon you see in community theater. This is just good theater. Period.