'Broadway Bound': Theater Review
Odyssey Theatre, West Los Angeles (runs through Sept. 28)
Gina Hecht, Allan Miller, Ian Alda, Noah James, Michael Mantell, Betsy Zajko, Brian Herskowitz, Ellen Ratner
Having appeared in the original 1986 Broadway cast, Jason Alexander returns to the closing chapter of Neil Simon's semi-autobiographical "Brighton Beach" trilogy, this time as director.
The last of Neil Simon's trilogy of quasi-autobiographical accounts of his coming-of-age years in the Brighton Beach neighborhood of Brooklyn, Broadway Bound stands among his plays as perhaps the most free from easy nostalgia, and therefore the most honest. In this sturdy 1986 drama, the requisite comedy arrives more or less organically, out of family humor or professional drive and ambition. Even seemingly harmless jokes can have unforeseen consequences for the wisecrackers and those they love. Looking toward posterity, this may be Simon's best.
By 1949, the Jerome household has settled into its own frosty Cold War between seething, suppressed mother, Kate (Gina Hecht, a recurring guest star on series such as Glee, Hung, ER and Seinfeld), and increasingly absent father, Jack (Michael Mantell), a cutter in the Garment District. Meanwhile, Simon surrogate Eugene (Ian Alda) and his spark-plug older brother, Stanley (Noah James), sweat out an all-nighter for their first big break in show business, writing a spec sketch for CBS. Kate's 77-year-old father, Ben (Allan Miller), an unreconstructed socialist, lives with them, long separated from his unseen wife. She lives with their other daughter, Blanche (Betsy Zajko), a widow whose successful second husband has landed her in a Park Avenue lifestyle that incites the family's class hostility.
Simon treads decidedly into Clifford Odets territory here, with iron-willed passive-aggressives hardened into the unremitting battle that becomes their last remaining expression of love. While hardly an Awake and Sing!, Broadway Bound does effectively marshal Simon's strength for observing behavioral detail. He shows us the roots of his compulsive drive to ferret out all possible gags in response to any provocation, most amusingly as he parses the unerring comic timing of Eugene's seemingly humorless, nevertheless hilarious grandfather.
Simon doesn't cut deep, nor does he proffer much insight, but he does have an acute ear for the reflexive oppositionality in which caring must be couched as criticism. His people obsessively misconstrue one another's speech as an obstinate way to preserve their sense of individuality within the hothouse atmosphere of that otherwise chilly house, too near the penetrating sea breezes. Like Eugene, Simon retains his eagerness to please as much as amuse. He devotes far too much of the early going to reassuring the audience that while this may not be a comedy, at least it's going to be funny.
These tough, working-class Jews make terrific characters for actors to bite into, and while they require crack rhythm to bring off the incessant baiting and bickering that substitutes for demonstrative affection, Simon writes those beats skillfully into his dialogue.
Director Jason Alexander, who originated the role of Stanley in the Broadway premiere, imparts his command of the material into an attentively drilled cast. Despite limited rehearsal time, the actors have become comfortable enough to dredge shaded subtext from their roles, which is impressive especially under the close scrutiny of an audience shoved smack into the period-detailed interior of their home.
While everyone excels, the plummiest parts inevitably belong to Kate and Ben. Kate's fabled account of the night she danced with George Raft in Hecht's expert hands seems less like an actor's reverie and more an edged epiphany — an aliveness she would never again experience. (In fairness to Simon, the scene works in large measure because of its counterpoint to Jack's own soul-crushed disappointment, poignantly conveyed by Mantell to garner empathy if never sympathy.) Ben may be more a fond construction than a truly drawn character, yet he remains an inspired invention by Simon to expose the DNA of his own drollery, and the spry Miller incarnates him with his own graceful footwork.
Cast: Gina Hecht, Allan Miller, Ian Alda, Noah James, Michael Mantell, Betsy Zajko, Brian Herskowitz, Ellen Ratner
Director: Jason Alexander
Playwright: Neil Simon
Set designer: Bruce Goodrich
Costume designer: Kate Bergh
Lighting designer: Leigh Allen
Sound designer: Martin Carillo
Presented by Ron Sossi, in association with Larry Field