For much of his prolific career, Neil Simon was the Rodney Dangerfield of dramatists. He didn't "get no respect" from the critics, who are often suspicious of success. Simon, of course, is the most commercially successful playwright ever. But by the time he wrote Broadway Bound in 1986, even the reviewers could recognize that Simon was reaching for something beyond easy laughs. Here he is delving into the dark side of his family past.
Set in the winter of 1949 in a modest Brooklyn home just two blocks from the ocean, this semi-autobiographical story concerns the Jerome brothers. Eugene and Stanley are on the verge of moving to a brave new world in Manhattan as comedy writers at CBS. But even as their heads are spinning with dreams of riches (and beautiful women), at home the family is falling apart. In shifting so deftly between comedy and melodrama, Broadway Bound succeeds in providing a highly pleasing at times even truthful evening of theater.
The opening scene reveals Simon at his best. Kate, the long-suffering mother, catches her Socialist, Trotsky-spouting father in a painfully embarrassing lie. The awkward situation, an intricate blend of humor and pathos, establishes the love in this family that surely exists but only rarely will be acknowledged for the remainder of the even-ing. It is an unspoken love that cannot cross the lips of our unlikely heroine. Kate probably never read a book in her life; she has little to contribute to conversations. She is a caretaker; her only validation comes from having the meals prepared on time. New Jewish Theatre producing artistic director Kathleen Sitzer portrays Kate with unadorned, unfettered simplicity. Despite the fact that Kate has come to believe she is much abused by those who should appreciate her most, there is not so much as a shred of self-pity in Sitzer's disciplined work.
The action picks up when the boys set out to write a comedy sketch for CBS. Kate's wealthy sister visits the house to handle some mostly unnecessary exposition with Poppa. As the sister, Ruth E. Heyman finds the center of a thankless role. Initially Bob Barr's grandfather is perhaps not as crusty as he might be. But by evening's end we come to rely on his charming irascibility.
Then Jack, the philandering father, arrives home. Simon punishes his father as only Simon can: He refuses to give him any laughs. In most productions of Broadway Bound, the audience feels only disdain for Jack not because he cheated on his wife but because the character is not funny, and for the first hour we've been laughing our heads off. But this New Jewish staging doesn't register many early laughs, because Eugene our narrator, principal character and Simon's alter ego is also not funny.
Eugene should be the play's main source of humor. Even when he's trying to be serious, he's funny. He's the ultimate innocent, incapable of understanding betrayal (which is why he's the only person in the play who does not beat up on Jack). In Eugene, innocence is amusing. But Andrew Keller is miscast as Eugene. He's both too old and too seasoned for the role. Keller might be terrific as the more intense older brother, but that role is already being played to great effect by Christopher Hickey. So in the early scenes between the brothers, we end up with two straight men and not a lot of laughs.
When Jack ever-so-belatedly enters the story late in Act One, because the expected laughs in the preceding scenes haven't been there, he doesn't seem out of place: We're simply witnessing a continuing family drama. Simon might not like his father, but Jerry Russo, who portrays Jack, does like him, and he gives the humorless character a fair hearing. In a convoluted sort of way, this Broadway Bound, which has been directed by Gary Wayne Barker, ends up being less funny but more balanced than other versions. And the audience leaves the theater not all that disappointed by the tradeoff.