Now playing at Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre Actor’s Café is the 1986 Neil Simon dramatic comedy Broadway Bound, directed by KatiBelle Collins. Because of the writer’s reputation as a sketch writer for radio and TV, then a playwright for Broadway and screenwriter for Hollywood, most tend to connect the name to comedy and quick-fire gags. Broadway Bound is the third and final part of his Eugene Trilogy following Brighton Beach Memoirs and Biloxi Blues. It’s also the least comical.
Often described as a ‘quasi-autobiographical trilogy,’ the three stand-alone plays are a reflection of Simon’s own background. Brighton Beach Memoirs told of family life in Brooklyn; Biloxi Blues was an account of basic training during World War II; while Broadway Bound centered on Eugene and his older brother Stanley’s opportunity to become comedy writers for CBS. Because of its theme, the play may well be the final chapter of a trilogy but it also works as a companion piece for Simon’s later work in 1993, Laughter on the 23rd Floor.
Told in two acts with principal action taking place in the Jerome living room, the setting is Brighton Beach, New York. The year: 1949. Eugene (David Michael Paul) has left the army and is now in his early twenties living back in Brooklyn with his parents, his grandpa, and his older brother Stanley (Raymond Cusick). Told with a narration from Eugene spoken in asides, the young man’s aspirations are in writing comedy, though to date, most of his work has been monologues for a guy who does birthdays and bar-mitzvahs. Then Stanley comes home with news. Somehow he’s wrangled a writing audition for CBS. Eugene and Stan need to write a sketch. The caveat is that they have to have it ready by the morning.
Grandpa (Rich Rose), who doesn’t possess an ounce of humor even though everything about him is Eugene’s inspiration for comic material, tells the boys to make the sketch political. “Everything is political,” the life-long Trotskyist explains.
But while the boys struggle to write – Stan’s best idea turns out to be something he heard three weeks earlier on The Red Skelton Show – there’s another conflict taking place. The boy’s mother, Kate (Kamy Renee Johnson) is only too aware of her husband’s indiscretions with another woman. When pop (J. Kevin Tallent) reluctantly admits his guilt, mom stands her ground. There’s also Kate’s affluent sister Blanche (Michele La Forest Richmond) who married rich. She wants grandpa to move to Florida to be with his estranged wife. Not only is grandpa not listening, but the dedicated socialist also is not happy with his daughter’s embracement of a capitalist’s cozy life in a Park Avenue apartment. “There’s so much material in this house,” Eugene narrates.
The cast is well chosen; each performer nicely embodies their character’s type. Raymond Cusick is good as older brother Stanley who enters with a lot of bounce. His high energy is nicely offset by David Michael Paul’s droll. likable Eugene. Though, Cusick might think of occasionally pulling things back a little, as in the hysterics displayed when he fears that the signal on the radio isn’t broadcasting as it should.
But despite the vigor of Cusick’s drive, the production’s pacing and tone in much of the script’s humorous moments often lacks the snap, crackle, and pop required of Simon’s dialog. The timing is occasionally off, reducing even an upbeat moment to plod, like someone who sets up a joke than stutters at the punchline, ruining the moment. Plus, the frequent hesitating and the occasional flubbing of lines drops the tempo even further.
The production is more effective when the play ignores the quips and becomes dramatic. Particularly good is the lengthy stretch in the first act between Tallent’s pop and Johnson’s ma as they confront each other, revealing truths and feelings of a marriage spiraling down. The play was a finalist for the Pulitzer for drama, and it’s in those scenes with mom and dad, and later in the second act when pop lets the boys know what he thought of their radio debut as writers that give director Collins’ production its heft. Tallent is the play’s weight and he’s thoroughly convincing.
Scenic designers Rick Sandifer and director Collins have also made good work with the intimacy of the Actor’s Café forum. Using the theatre’s bricked upstage as the painted wall of the Jerome family living room gives the area extra depth, nicely creating the illusion of more space than is really there. Only the artificial look of Eugene’s truncated bedroom on a raised platform at center appears false.
You don’t need to have seen either Brighton Beach Memoirs or Biloxi Blues in order to enjoy Broadway Bound. Though the three are connected by the character of Eugene, each was written as an individual work, no prior knowledge required. But if your impression of Neil Simon is locked with Barefoot in the Park or The Odd Couple and you’re less familiar with the more dramatic turn he took with The Prisoner of Second Avenue, then Broadway Bound is not going to be what you think. But it is among the Simon’s best writing, and it’s those scenes between Johnson and Tallent that show why.
Broadway Bound is currently performing at Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre Actor’s Café until June 9
Pictures courtesy of Renee Ashlock