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Broadway Bound/Rumors

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Broadway Bound, Pegasus Players, and Rumors, Eclipse Theatre Company, at Victory Gardens Theater. These two plays from the late 80s demonstrate the extremes of Neil Simon's range as a comic writer. The 1986 Broadway Bound is an affecting, beautifully structured autobiographical piece about the playwright's family at the time he and his brother broke into television writing, in the late 40s. The final installment in a trilogy that began with Brighton Beach Memoirs and continued with Biloxi Blues, it might be his best play, deftly sidestepping the two flaws of other Simon works: a dependence on stereotypes and a tendency to deflate a scene's emotional stakes with easy laughs. Here the matriarch may be Jewish, but she's a far cry from the time-worn Jewish mother.

Alex Levy's graceful, perfectly paced Pegasus Players production takes full advantage of the play's strengths: over two poignant acts, we watch a family break apart. There isn't a weak performance, and quite a few are so strong they've displaced my memories of better-known actors in the roles. That goes double for Franette Liebow's sweet, subtle, devastating take on the long-suffering mother.

The play produced after Broadway Bound, the 1988 farce Rumors, couldn't be more different. A lighthearted comedy, it depicts the complications that arise when a group of young nouveau riche New Yorkers try to cover up a prominent friend's apparent attempted suicide. As in all too many Simon plays, the premise is better than the execution: Rumors veers from sitcom shallowness to annoying A.R. Gurney-like self-consciousness to a wild hysteria that would have done Georges Feydeau proud.

The script's variability is heightened by Eclipse Theatre's spasmodic production. Sometimes Greg Werstler's cast hits the right pace, with hilarious results. Meghan Maureen McDonough and Janelle Snow in particular seem to know in their bones how to deliver Simon's lines. Other times the cast pushes the humor too hard or allows the hysteria to go too far, and then Simon's farce turns deadly dull.

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