Reviewed by Bob Verini
Through Sept. 21
Reviewed by Bob Verini
Through Sept. 21
Broadway Bound, the 1986 final installment in Neil Simon’s avowedly autobiographical trilogy that began with Brighton Beach Memoirs, receives a warm and affectionate revival at the Odyssey. Maybe too warm, though not too warm for comfort.
On opening night, at least, a couple of the performances seemed to kick off at an uncomfortable level of jacked-up excitement, leaving them nowhere to go but screeching. As a result, it wasn’t as easy as it should have been to sit back and revel -– with one’s feet up, as it were -– in the comfy couch naturalism of Bruce Goodrich’s meticulously detailed set, and become absorbed in Simon’s bittersweet reflections of Brooklyn life among those eager to forge a new life in World War II’s wake. Then again, well-worn family furniture is going to be frayed and lumpy in places, and even the most loving of families will encounter rough times.
All of which is true of the experience of viewing Broadway Bound.
The prolific author’s take on the “Good War” is explored in #2 of the trilogy, Biloxi Blues, in which Simon’s stand-in (Eugene Morris Jerome), struggling through basic training, conquers two inescapable coming-of-age developments: the culture shock of living among people very different from oneself, and losing one’s virginity.
What’s interesting is that Biloxi’s Eugene doesn’t have much to do with the one who’s trying to break free from hearth and home in Broadway Bound. As played here by Ian Alda, his point of view is as parochial as someone who’d never been away, and the longing for the girl of his dreams — an ongoing preoccupation in the play –- makes us think he’s never gotten laid in his life. This Eugene isn’t an advance, as a matter of fact, on the imaginative, slightly creepy little boy of play #1, where he’s essentially a shuttlecock on the family badminton court, whacked forward and back by events.
All of this is partly to say that Broadway Bound may work best as presented at the Odyssey, i.e. separated from the Trilogy’s sequence. But mostly it attests to the strange, jagged structural choices Simon made in distilling his personal narrative for the stage. Not only is Eugene very different from play to play, but the construction in all three plays is notably inelegant. In Bound, for instance, four or five subplots are awkwardly juggled in a way that would horrify an old playwriting teacher. A key character –- Eugene’s Aunt Blanche (Betsy Zajko, lovely), once impoverished and now a Park Ave. belle dame –- whirls in to rake up some old coals and promptly disappears. The Act 1 curtain, which traditionally leaves a major dramatic question open, falls flat. Tonally, the play spins on a dime as white-hot conflict shares the stage uneasily with japery, and characters in mortal combat one minute are allies the next.
Sure, you can say “that’s just like life, life is an awkward mix of all of that,” but that’s only a rationalization. We expect plays not just to be lifelike, but also to bring its elements together in an aesthetically pleasing way. (Every cake can and should be tasty, but we most admire the cake that’s decorated with care.) Since Simon had already proved himself a master of the well-made play as early as The Odd Couple, you have to figure that the loose ends and bad fits are deliberate.
I think Simon was trying so hard to get his soul onto the stage – to spill his guts as Eugene might put it –- that he simply threw to the winds any concern for following rules of standard construction. You can almost hear him thinking, “This is what happened as I choose to remember it. Above all, I will be faithful in spirit to these people I loved. This isn’t a dramatic piece for the ages to admire; this is a poem for my people and me.”
Every page – and every minute at the Odyssey – of Broadway Bound is infused with that defiance and personal commitment, and it’s a tribute to director Jason Alexander’s understanding and control that most of it proves so gripping and real. He does his best with the older generation: Gina Hecht, stoic yet vulnerable as the self-sacrificing, iron-willed mother; Michael Mantell as the father, so poignantly, finally unable to breathe within the environment she’s created; and Allan Miller, the old socialist grandpa stubbornly hanging on to his privacy as his mind starts slipping away. (Miller is an acting teacher by trade, and he provides a stunning acting lesson here.) The scenes in which this trio are favored demonstrate the most interesting pacing and levels.
The Jerome brothers – older sibling Stanley (Noah James) standing in for Neil’s writing partner Danny – are more problematic. The writing is all over the place, now warm, now hostile, and the acting feels improperly modulated. James (as Spinal Tap would say) “starts at 11,” and seems to be pulling Alda into his orbit; their shouting in the opening scene leaves them nowhere to go thereafter. Both wear out their welcome early, though Alda calms down in Act 2 (when, as it happens, the character has a 102 degree fever).
What’s gone awry in their scenes? Is it that Simon’s feelings about his brother are particularly fraught and conflicted, so he’s least capable of working them out? Has it anything to do with the fact that Alexander originated the Stanley role on Broadway, which might be skewing his perspective? Or did these two talented and attractive actors, like sleek colts awaiting their first race, just bust out of the gate too hard and too fast?
Whatever the explanation, I for one would enjoy returning to Broadway Bound once everyone has settled in. Even now, the play’s frustrations are more than outweighed by its pleasures. And that, for sure, is just like life.
Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., WLA; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. (added perfs Wed., Aug. 20 and Sept. 10, 8 p.m.; Thurs., Aug. 14, Sept. 4 and Sept. 18, 8 p.m.); through Sept. 21. (310) 477-2055, Ext. 2, odysseytheatre.com