It’s understood Neil Simon is a gifted comic playwright. But the cynicism, the irony that makes his humor so pointed and resonant, doesn’t get much attention. In all fairness, that dark streak is more evident in some pieces than others. Early in his career he wrote The Gingerbread Lady for Maureen Stapleton, a rueful, wry comedy tracking the journey of a woman recovering from alcoholism, before terms like: “enabling, dependency, sobriety” were part of the popular vernacular. Broadway Bound is probably the most melancholy of Simon’s autobiographical trilogy (including Brighton Beach Memoirs and Biloxi Blues) though its salient aspect is also humor. Simon attempts a deeper intimacy, by owning his shadow. His flaws are not divulged in some tortured moment of excruciating humility, but simply. Plainly.
Eugene and Stanley Jerome are brothers, living with their parents, Kate and Jack, and their grandpa, Ben. Like many Jewish working-class families in New York, they live in Brighton Beach. Their cultural identity affects their attitudes, values and how they live, in the same way it affects Latin Catholics, WASPS and cold-water Baptists. Back in the day, Grandpa Ben was a vociferous Socialist. And he still is. Stanley and Eugene are starting to hit their stride as comic writers. Kate and Jack are growing more and more distant from one another. The animosity is tangible, but no one talks about it. Eugene’s astonishing gift is his ability to confront painful truths with his subversive, wise-ass wit. Imagine the family dog was hit by a car. Your mother serves dinner that evening. She asks how you like the pot roast, and you say: “I dunno. Usually I’d just sneak it to Sophie.” [This is strictly an example. It’s not in the play.]
The brothers feel increasingly frustrated and contentious. But they steadily climb higher in the entertainment business. When a comedy sketch Eugene and Stanley wrote is broadcast, their whole family gathers, and all their friends, throughout the neighborhood. Afterwards, Kate is genuinely proud (but distracted) Grandfather only likes political satire, and Jack is insulted. He’s convinced the two were taking jabs at him. This marks a turning point for Eugene, who realizes rage is his ticket to real success, if he mixes it with sly humor. Stanley encourages Eugene to befriend “that son-of-a-bitch” lurking inside, because it will take him far. What follows is astounding.
Eugene’s mother tells the anecdote of the night she danced with George Raft. But for some reason, this time it’s different. For the first time Eugene sees Kate, before she was his mother, consumed with responsibilities. She shows him how to dance, and he confides to us the dubious, profound rush of falling in love and showing up his dad. Neil Simon must know we know it’s him, but he takes that dangerous step – hoping we’ll understand. He trusts us with his broken, sad, frail humanity. What Sherry Etzel (Kate) and Quinn Angell (Eugene) achieve here (with Director Evelyn Davis) is remarkable. Who knew they could take us to this reckless, inconsolable realm of leaving boyhood behind? This is a diligent, inspired, dedicated cast. Go. See Broadway Bound. Bring someone dear to you and five handkerchiefs.
Theatre Frisco presents Broadway Bound, playing February 24th-March 12th, 2017. 8004 North Dallas Parkway, Suite 200, Frisco, TX 75034. (Call and ask for directions.) 972-370-2266. www.theatrefrisco.com