The third play of Neil Simon's autobiographical trilogy, Broadway Bound, is only ankle deep. But the wading is both more pleasant and more interesting than in the first two plays in the series, Brighton Beach Memoirs and Biloxi Blues. This last play is about writing--the desire, the tedium and the delight in success. And the Arvada Center's production, uneven though it is, offers a slick, professional and largely engaging rendition of the Simon family drama.
In this fond view of his family, Simon places himself (under the alias Eugene Jerome) in the most sympathetic light. It is 1949, and both he and his brother, Stan, have survived combat in World War II and are looking for ways to make a living. They have decided to be writers, living at home in Brighton Beach until the first breath of success will blow them to New York City.
Mother Kate drives Eugene's desire to write, as both his unconscious muse and the proto-storyteller who delights her son with tales from her youth--and, by example, teaches him how to tell a story. Kate is the emotional anchor of the play, the still point of this turning world. But she's also the source of conflict. Her husband, Jack, has been unfaithful to her, and after a year of enduring cold deceit and hurtful indifference, she finally confronts him.
As it turns out, Eugene and Stan have a knack for writing sketch material, and Stan has a knack for making contacts. So the boys write for radio. Their parents listen to their first program, but neither they nor Grandpa Ben laugh even once. Only Jack recognizes where their comedy is really coming from: that odd blend of affection and hostility that so permeates most humor. Stan and Eugene have zeroed in on the non sequiturs, paradoxes, absurdities and cute mannerisms of their own family and culture. They've also captured their father's betrayal and their mother's pain.
Eventually Jack moves out, devastating Kate and the boys. But though the breakup is seminal to the story, Simon skims over the tough stuff, never allowing us a glimpse of the true suffering. The playwright doesn't want us to feel anything real about the situation he presents or look too deeply into human motives. So we're stuck at the surface, laughing at the jokes but nothing more--all quite typical of Simon.
The best thing about the Arvada Center show is Ann Ducati's Kate. She's robust, bright, prickly and warm--often all at once. She moves with the grace of a dancer and, indeed, we learn that Kate once danced with George Raft (before he became a movie star, of course). Kate's telling of the George Raft story is the funniest and most poignant moment of the play. We are as enthralled as Eugene is by the tale, and at that point we realize where his ability to write really comes from. It's a crucial moment that owes more to Ducati's performance than it does to Simon's script.
Jeffrey Rhys plays Jack with a weighty moodiness absolutely right for the part. Together he and Ducati (perhaps because they are married in real life) achieve a palpable intimacy seldom seen on stage in these parts.
Eugene A. Texas plays the old grandfather with great skill and enviable wit. The character Simon created is the very stereotype of an old Jewish man, but Texas's performance is nevertheless touching and amusing.
Unfortunately, the boys themselves fare less well--and here director Ducati may be partly to blame. Both Rob Costigan as Eugene and Marshall Drew as Stan exaggerate their accents and behavior a touch too much, bobbing their heads and gesturing extravagantly. They need to relax into character, believe their roles, and realize that the lines as they're written are funny enough.
The two-story set design by Nick and Joan Cimyotte is one of the best things about the production; in an especially effective touch, a cutaway wall reveals the bustling urban environment outside the Jerome family's door. Donna Carter's costumes are a perfect blend of Forties and Fifties styles, and the look of the show is first-rate.
But looks aren't everything. Neil Simon writes lightweight comic dramas built on insightful observations of human behavior, and he's very good at it. It's just too bad he never goes any further with his material than he does. If only he had something significant to say.
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