Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Also see Richard's recent review of Death of a Salesman
If you want Neil Simon to transcend "Neil Simon," you've got to get him to talk about Neil Simon.
Nowhere else in his plays is the detail as rich, the conflict so mystically complex, and the characters as direct and authentic, as in his roman à clef series: Brighton Beach Memoirs (1982), Biloxi Blues (1984), and Broadway Bound (1986, completing "the Eugene trilogy"), which fictionalized Simon's early years. That third installment is on stage now at New Jewish Theatre in St. Louis, full of vision and graceful nuance, thanks to director Alan Knoll. The two hour and forty-minute comedy flies by and warms our hearts in an otherwise bleak January.
Twelve years have passed since the time period of the first play in the trilogy. And half of this present cast returns from the NJT's 2019 staging of Brighton Beach Memoirs, including the excellent team of Jacob Flekier and Spencer Kruse, reprising the roles of the two sons in the Jerome family. The young men on stage display all the byzantine emotional insight of the older actors themselves. But this time, Eugene and Stanley are even more irrepressible, clawing their way into the early days of TV comedy writing.
Their mother Kate (played this time by the warm but no-nonsense Jenni Ryan) becomes the heart and soul of the play, as the family prepares to up and leave her behind, for various reasons. The two boys can barely grasp the meaning of her particular story, inside of the memory play, set in 1949. But Simon, through Eugene's narration, and the actress Ms. Ryan in this new production, add a lovely dash of poetry to her journey. Long before the age of holograms, Kate Jerome becomes a three-dimensional figure of ghostly maternal abandonment, in an otherwise farcical comedy. Oscar and Felix, from an earlier Simon hit, would have been amazed.
The usually genteel stage veteran Bob Harvey transforms himself into an irascible Eastern European Jewish grandfather with plenty of great old-world liberalism and a 24-karat gold sense of poignancy. Christina Rios is touching as Kate's sister, whose life changed when her husband struck it rich in business. Now she's pained at being pushed away from their socialist father, Ben (Mr. Harvey).
The Jerome father, Jack, doesn't enter for a good 30 minutes in, and actor Chuck Brinkley has the same mysterious antagonized authority that he showed in the role in 2019. He's a bit maddening, intentionally, till he reveals his innermost thoughts late in the game. Turns out he's become impatient with his circumstance and (strangely) gets plenty of sympathy from the playwright for his emotional wanderings. In spite of that, we are legit cowed into respecting him, because of the deep authenticity of the actor, when he finally tells his sons what he really thought of their comedy writing debut.
A lot of the emotional complexity in the play stems from characters pushing each other away from emotional closeness at regular intervals. But overall, Broadway Bound is funny, I swear. Each of the men on stage has a grand notion of himself, while the women are left to offer hope and common sense before being condemned to a life of emotional deprivation inside their own homes. Still, a funny play. And Kate finally does get to stand her own psychological ground in her inevitable exile, with a beautiful, Simonized glimpse of her own self-romanticizing, at the very end.
But what can you do? In comedy, the idol one builds up to worship often bears an astonishing resemblance to one's own self.
Broadway Bound runs through February 5, 2023, at the Jewish Community Center, #2 Millstone Campus Drive, St. Louis MO. For tickets and information, please visit www.newjewishtheatre.org.