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Broadway Bound


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Pegasus Players

There's a telling scene near the end of Broadway Bound in which Eugene Jerome--representing the youthful Neil Simon--raptly listens to his mother, Kate. First shyly, then rhapsodically, she retells a memory familiar to both of them: how one spe

cial night George Raft--slick, sophisticated, and notorious--actually asked her to dance, how they eased across a spellbound dance floor, and how young Kate became, too briefly, the envy of the neighborhood.

Simon not only gives the memory a shape like a living statue, he also shows us Eugene's amazement that his mother ever had a vibrant life apart from him. More important, Eugene is caught in the act of becoming a writer: this time around he doesn't just hear Kate's oft-told tale, he transforms it into an imaginary play by acting out potential audience reactions and punching home the reverie's big moments.

All the give-and-take between life and art is right there in this seminal scene.

Broadway Bound, the third installment in Simon's semiautobiographical trilogy, is in many ways the most revealing. Simon's "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Gag Writer" depicts a young, contagiously hopeful Eugene and his eager-beaver brother, Stanley, embarking on careers as comedy writers at the very moment that their Brooklyn family is falling apart: their maternal grandparents have separated, their parents are soon to split, and at the end Eugene and Stanley--no longer stockroom and retail clerks but salaried serial writers for CBS Radio--leave home for Manhattan. (As in the earlier plays, Eugene acts as narrator; here it makes especially good sense, given the writer's journey depicted in Broadway Bound.)

It's almost comically cruel, this Chekhov-like juxtaposition of the sons' callow careerism with the rapid disintegration of the Jerome household. It should be sad, but there's too much life to it.

Equally honest is the way this domestic drama refuses to fob off neat solutions, let alone a happy ending. The story builds by relentlessly denying any expectation of joyous last-minute reconciliations. At the same time, the most positive force in the play--Eugene's ambition to strike it rich as a radio writer--is nothing more than a dramatic promissory note. It's a harrowing picture: a past that's rapidly burning out, and a future that remains beyond reach. Fortunately, the comparatively little of the play that happens in the present tense is delightful, by no means the usual formulaic "simple Simon."

It's the late 40s, and whether he knows it or not, young Eugene, a hardened veteran of family squabbles (Brighton Beach Memoirs) and World War II (Biloxi Blues), is slowly turning his life into art. With their mother's blessing, Eugene and Stanley seek careers as comedy writers; the father just wants them to work hard, as he must in a job he loathes, and not complain.

These family portraits, rich with a writer's details gleaned from sharp-eyed observation, resonate with the charm of memory and the harshness of the actual. The now-rich Aunt Blanche returns, desperate to reunite her parents. But Eugene's Trotsky- loving grandfather refuses to join his wife in Florida, certain no decent socialist could ever submit to such self- indulgence. At the same time, Eugene's mother is helpless to keep her brood from slipping away--or even to get them to show up for dinner (a telling difference from Brighton Beach Memoirs).

Instead Kate watches her marriage take the same downward course as her mother's. Husband Jack, burnt out from years of dead-end work as a cutter of women's raincoats, is unfaithful. The other woman is no Jezebel--a middle-aged, dying widow who simply asks Jack questions that make him see everything differently. Kate is left to agonize over a lifetime's sacrifices, including the sacrifice of a life of her own; all those sacrifices seemed so important at the time.

If Kate is looking back, Eugene and Stanley are trying to peel the wrappings from their future. In the play's most original scene, we see Eugene and Stanley working against deadline in a desperate search for a surefire formula for flawless comedy. (An exhausted Stanley remarks, "I love being a writer--it's just the writing I can't take.") At last Stanley finds it: people laugh when a character's overwhelming need for something is frustrated by some undeniable conflict. Their example--a man with a busted back and a woman with a broken leg can't close a window in winter--isn't screamingly funny, but it contains the crucial element, other people's pain, that Simon will eventually exploit in many, many comedies to come.

Certainly this play practices what it preaches. Hilarious conflict--between art and life and between life and life--erupts when the family gathers to hear the brothers' first half-hour broadcast. It doesn't help that the grandfather despises humor: art should be about something, he argues, preferably the coming victory of the proletariat. But the Jerome brothers know that writers must write about what they know, in this case their family.

When the Jeromes see themselves as the butt of jokes on national radio, especially when the father is described as a garment cutter who's "into lady's pajamas," it's no laugh a minute. Interpreting the crack as an accusation of adultery, Jack reviles the boys for disgracing the family by hanging out its dirty laundry. Stanley retorts that their father dirtied it himself. Or course both are right, which is just what makes it hurt.

This moment represents Eugene's first encounter with the treacherous power of art over life. But he soon learns that family friends who listened to the broadcast thought the boys were spoofing their families. Art can transcend its inspiration after all. The play ends in a series of Chekhovian farewells.

In a promising professional debut, gangly Brian McCaskill nicely balances Eugene's coltish energy and hunger for the big time against his helplessness to prevent his parents' breakup. Carole Gutierrez, at first glib and perky as the beleaguered Kate, eventually--and dramatically --hardens herself. Despite a nearly perpetual frown, this mother faces hard times with unforced grace and no small residue of love; and when she recalls the close encounter with George Raft, the whole stage glows.

As the father, Peter Maronge emotionally isolates this bitter, lonely man from the start; where almost everyone else reaches out, he's resolutely pulling in. "There's no place for me" is his sad conclusion. In contrast, Martin Bedoian as Stanley shows us all too well the price this needy, frustrated young man has paid trying to reach a father who can't be there for him. In a sharply etched cameo, Patricia Van Oss conveys Aunt Blanche's current crisis: she won't feel guilty just because she's rich.

The most cunning work is Harold Terchin's foxy performance as the sardonic, all-too-literal grandfather, a man who can tell a joke without getting it. No doubt this boilerplated curmudgeon will be the hardest audience Eugene ever plays to--the best discipline possible for a future king of Broadway.

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