Perhaps It Won't Stand The Test Of Time, But 'Broadway Bound' Is Entertaining Fluff.
By Dave Irwin
BEING GOOD CAN be a blessing and a curse. Consider Neil Simon, creator of The Odd Couple, The Sunshine Boys, The Goodbye Girl, Plaza Suite, etc. Simon is consistently very, very good and also very popular, but hardly ever great in a classic, enduring sense.
Ever hear of playwright Charles H. Hoyt? Of course not--no one has, except overly researched theatre critics and historians with a yen for the obscure. But 100 years ago, Hoyt was all the rage, America's most popular playwright, whose vapid 1891 comedy A Trip to Chinatown held the record in its day for the most performances. But as a playwright, if you don't write a real classic, something that speaks deeply and profoundly about the human condition rather than the current vogue, no matter how popular you may be in your time, you fade in the long run.
Ironically, Simon is most familiar (and will achieve more permanence) for the film adaptations of his stage plays rather than the plays themselves. Despite his Pulitzer Prize for Lost in Yonkers, Simon will likely suffer the same fate as Hoyt, as his mid-20th century New York Jewish humor becomes as passé as comedies about rural bumpkins visiting their sophisticated but senseless urban cousins. This is because as pleasant as a Neil Simon play is, there's no waiting profundity, no deep message. If he has any message at all for the ages, it's probably, "What? Just being entertaining is a sin?"
The Invisible Theatre's current production of Simon's Broadway Bound is an amusing and enjoyable bit of cotton candy. Directed by longtime IT Artistic Associate Gail Fitzhugh, who also handles sound design, the players effectively evoke the increasing complications of post-WWII New York life. Narrator Eugene (Nathaniel Johnston) and his brother Stanley (Ryan C. Hunter) are trying to break into comedy writing for radio. Amid the cozy dysfunctional chaos of a home inhabited by suffering wife and mother Kate (Donna Davis), her curmudgeonly Trotsky-socialist father Ben (Bert Albert), and philandering husband Jack (James Blair), the brothers are on the verge of their big break for CBS.
Kate's married-to-money sister Blanche (Linda Andresano) cares for their never-seen mother uptown and then in Miami. We follow the angst of comedy writing as the brothers' first oeuvre, heavily borrowed from their real lives, is broadcast. The play completes a trilogy, based on the tribulations of Simon's formative years, that also includes Brighton Beach Memoirs and Biloxi Blues.
Davis does a stunning job as the culture-bound mom, worried about overcooking her pot roast while her world falls apart. A regular at the Gaslight Theatre, Davis perfectly captures the dulcet honking of a borough housewife (kudos throughout to dialect coach Dianne J. Winslow). Her subtle acting anchors the action, allowing other players more room for broader contrasts.
Johnston has a bright, wide-eyed enthusiasm reminiscent of a young Tony Curtis. His goofy ebullience about the girl he's trying to woo, and the task of learning his craft, is a welcome counterpoint to the career obsession of his brother. As the brother, Hunter in turn is more manic, but largely with voice and gesture. His face does not display the range of Johnston, a minor drawback to his role.
Blair, who also designed the tidy set which uses a revolving centerpiece to minimize scene changes, has the dramatic part. Unsure of what he wants in life, other than what he doesn't have, he provides the seriousness that balances the comedy. Blair gives the needed tension with careful focus to his structured role, a man more searching than seething.
Andresano gives a workmanlike performance in her minor part, but there's not much to do as simply the bearer of bad news between the warring grandparents.
Bert Albert is a scene stealer in his position as the wise elder, who is mostly a wise-ass. His hilariously humorless delivery and intuitive timing are one of the best things about this production. As the befuddled 77-year-old socialist whose last happy day was the 1930s stock-market crash, he gets the best lines. Albert plays his role keenly, never losing character even as the action jumps to narration discussing him in the third person; he pops back into the fray with a split-second definition that keeps the pace seamless.
Overall, there's much to like about IT's Broadway Bound. It's well-acted and neatly staged. But as well-constructed as a Neil Simon play is, it's as challenging as an episode of the Dick Van Dyke Show (which was based on the behind-the-scenes workings of Your Show of Shows, where Simon spent his journeyman days). In the end, the meatiest thing in Simon's reminiscence is Kate's off-stage pot roast, which we never get to taste.
Broadway Bound, directed by Gail Fitzhugh, continues through March 28 at the Invisible Theatre, 1400 N. First Ave. (at Drachman Street). Show times are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $14 to $17.50. For reservations and information, call 882-9721.
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