Simon Succeeds

Arizona Repertory concludes the Eugene Jerome trilogy brilliantly with 'Broadway Bound'

The UA's Arizona Repertory Theatre and its earlier incarnation have mounted some impressive large-scale projects in the past decade or two: Nicholas Nickleby, The Kentucky Cycle, Henry IV 1 and 2, The Cider House Rules and maybe one or two others I am by now too stunned to remember.

I wouldn't put it past them to put on Tom Stoppard's Coast of Utopia trilogy as soon as they can get the rights. Probably the only thing stopping them from launching August Wilson's 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle is that, as Richard Pryor once observed, there are no black people in Arizona, and that presents a severe casting problem.

You might not be inclined to include in this august company Neil Simon's three plays documenting the maturation of his alter ego, budding comic playwright Eugene Jerome; the Simon plays hold to a more intimate physical, emotional and, yes, intellectual scale. Yet with Broadway Bound, the concluding installment in Simon's cycle, Arizona Rep's town-and-gown team has again displayed the talent and sustained commitment to match its ambitions.

Simon is surely soiling himself in substantial filthy lucre hauled in from Tucson, where what seem like monthly revivals of his works keep the royalty checks rolling in. (There were three different Simon plays on the boards here last weekend; see the adjacent review of his Chapter Two.) Since Simon is getting off easy these days, I'll follow suit and merely cut and paste some background material from my last review of Broadway Bound:

"The Neil Simon (of the Eugene Jerome plays) is not the Borscht-Belt-on-Broadway middlebrow comedy factory who built his career on easy laughs. This Neil Simon is the author of three funny and sincere semiautobiographical plays about coming of age in the 1940s, beginning with Brighton Beach Memoirs (produced by the University of Arizona in 2005) and continuing with Biloxi Blues (offered last summer and fall at the UA). Broadway Bound concludes the trilogy, closes the seriocomic saga of the Jerome family and provides that rarest of things, a strong role for a middle-aged actress.

"Oh, the old familiar Simon is present in the person of young Eugene, a font of never-malicious wisecracks who is maturing beyond the protection of his increasingly troubled family. Eugene and his older brother, Stanley, are trying to break into showbiz as TV and radio comedy writers, and after many dead ends, they figure out that their best material is right there at home, documenting the travails of their put-upon Jewish mother, their overworked and largely absent father, and their seemingly humorless Trotskyite grandfather.

"Unfortunately, there's less and less to laugh about in the Jerome household. Mother Kate and father Jack are becoming estranged, while increasingly decrepit Grandpa is resisting pressure from another daughter to join his ex-wife in Miami.

"In Broadway Bound, Eugene and Stanley struggle to come up with a good broadcast comedy sketch that will impress their parents, but although this occupies a lot of stage time, it's really just a subplot. The heart of the play is the disintegration of the parents' marriage, and here, Simon eschews the easy one-liners in order to tell a serious if all-too-common story."

For the past three years, J. Michael Trautmann (who recently graduated from the UA) has done such an admirable job of bringing Eugene to life, from the character's early teens, through boot camp and now the brink of adulthood, that when I think of Jerome, I think of Trautmann, not Matthew Broderick (who took the role in the first two installments on stage and in the big-screen version of Biloxi Blues). Trautmann gets to the heart of this kid, doesn't indulge in good-old-days sentimentality, tosses off the laugh lines with ease and maintains good chemistry with his castmates. (The sure guidance of director Brent Gibbs has certainly helped him a lot along the way.)

That said, Broadway Bound really belongs to the character of Kate, the mother, and Carlisle Ellis takes possession of the role--and so the play--with the same low-key, ceaseless dedication with which Kate presides over the Jerome house. Ellis knows better than to play Kate as a perky TV housewife; Kate is a little tired, perhaps a bit of a drudge by necessity, yet Kate and Ellis are always in motion to good purpose, always accomplishing something assiduously but quietly. In what may be the one time in 20 years Kate allows herself a moment of nostalgia, Ellis shows us that Kate can enjoy the sweet memory without getting all misty over it. And in the confrontation with Jack, she recovers from a flash of vulnerability by wrapping herself in a blanket woven as much from dignity as from bitterness.

Dwayne Palmer--if only he had more stage time--rightly plays Jack as a worn-down pragmatist; even his midlife crisis is, to a degree, worn and pragmatic. Kent Sorensen plays the grandfather warmly, indulging in only as much befuddled-old-man shtick as absolutely necessary. Scott Reynolds (the only cast member who is still a student) is nicely flustered as Eugene's ambitious but stymied brother; he intuits, good-naturedly, that he'll wind up a Zeppo to Eugene's Groucho. Laura Ann Herman is sensible but wry as Kate's sister, and it's a pity we see so little of her.

The production in every respect maintains high standards, particularly the wonderful, detailed two-level set by Sally Day and the period-perfect costumes by Kristen Wheeler. This is a quietly excellent presentation, doomed to play to small audiences through this early-summer weekend. Fortunately, it will be revived in September to open the regular season. A production of this quality should stay fresh until then.

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