Subtle Simon | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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at the Shubert Theatre

The key to writing comedy, Stanley Jerome advises his younger brother Eugene in Broadway Bound, lies in two elements: desire and conflict. A character wants something; that desire puts him in conflict with other characters and/or circumstances; the result is comedy. The more believable it is, the better comedy it is.

Broadway Bound, which is a superb comedy, is all about desire and conflict. But these elements are expressed in a very indirect, inferential way. In his early plays--Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, Last of the Red Hot Lovers, et al--Neil Simon focused on simple (though not simplistic) characters caught up in simple needs and conflicts. The action of the plays was swift, the mode confrontational, the conflicts sharply defined. In his trilogy of autobiographical plays begun in 1983--Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, and the climactic Broadway Bound, now playing in a touring production at the Shubert Theatre--Simon paints a larger and subtler picture; the needs of his characters--the Jerome family, modeled on Simon's own household--are less obvious, and less easily resolved.

As a result, the laughs that Simon coaxes out of his characters are richer and more varied. There are the usual pithy, Jewish-inflected one-liners: "A heart attack God gives you. Nerves you get from people who worry about you"; "Jewish guys are never good at sports played between November and April." But they are more deeply woven into the fabric of everyday human life that Simon so convincingly and affectingly presents.

Broadway Bound is a memory play; like that other memory play, The Glass Menagerie, it compresses into one brief period of time--a few days in the winter of 1949--a distillation of many crucial emotional developments. The play shows us Eugene Jerome, an aspiring writer and a young man poised on the brink of adulthood, as he faces his first real love affair and his first real job offer. At the same time, Eugene experiences his first real adult-to-adult confrontation with his mother even as he watches his parents' marriage of 33 years disintegrate; and finally, Eugene himself leaves the home he grew up in. So Broadway Bound is, in essence, a comedy about the breakup of a family, the fragmentation of a once close-knit unit in response to the multiple--and conflicting--desires of its members.

Within this narrative framework, Simon presents a series of epiphanies, small moments of illumination in which the process of life and change is experienced. We see Eugene and his brother Stanley as they labor over their first assignment as comedy writers; since Eugene and Stanley are surrogates for Neil and Danny Simon, two of the most influential American humorists of the post-World War II era, this sequence is invariably fascinating for anyone who has laughed at TV or movies in the past 35 years. We see the brothers as they eagerly share their work with their family, only to learn the bitter truth that any writing drawn from real experience will inevitably hurt somebody's feelings (the responsibility of the writer to those he is writing about is a major theme in Simon's Eugene Jerome trilogy). Most memorably, we share Eugene's recognition--gradual awareness capped by a sudden burst of comprehension--of his mother Kate as a full, flawed, complex human being.

The family has always been a major source of comedy, because people reveal to their families parts of themselves they hide from the rest of the world. But people hide from each other in families, too; Simon is concerned with the unexpected revelation of those hidden emotions. Kate, Eugene's mother, is a drained-out, middle-aged woman who has spent her life doing for others, specifically for men: her father, her husband, her sons. In the action described by Broadway Bound, Kate stops hiding; sadly, her self-revelations are only temporary. Suspecting her husband of infidelity and sensing his emotional withdrawal, she confronts the man strongly enough to destroy their marriage; had she pursued the issues she raised, she might have rebuilt and even improved the relationship, but her stubbornness and her ingrained habit of passive resistance make that impossible. And in the play's most famous and lovely scene, at the climax of the second act, Kate reluctantly relives a moment from her youth: the night she defied her parents and went to the local dance palace, where she danced with celebrity gangster George Raft. First telling and then acting out the story for her inquisitive son Eugene, Kate moves beyond nostalgia; she brings the past to life. Then, as if resenting her lost youth all the more for having briefly regained it, she retreats permanently into her shell, her "Jewish mother" image, as she lives out the end of her life alone in the big house in Brighton Beach where she raised and lost a family.

Carole Shelley, the British actress who made her U.S. debut 24 years ago playing the giggly Gwendolyn Pigeon in Simon's Odd Couple, gives a performance of astonishing delicacy and fullness as Kate. Just as the strength of Simon's dialogue comes from its being rooted in the reality of the characters, Shelley's power derives from the genuineness with which she responds to the other characters on the stage; playing a dried-up, embittered woman, she nonetheless gives a performance of complete generosity, turning the play from the star turn it could have been into the ensemble piece it should be.

William Ragsdale, who played Eugene last season in the road show of Biloxi Blues, meets Shelley with a paradoxical mix of warmth and distance that perfectly fits this memory play; his errant father Jack is played superbly by David Margulies--the scene in which Jack admits his extramarital affair to Kate is every bit as upsetting as it should be--and the compulsively achieving older brother Stanley is played with fierce and funny intensity by Nathan Lane. Salem Ludwig, as Eugene's aging socialist grandfather, and Bernice Massi, as Kate's wealthily married sister, round out Simon's wonder-filled vision of the family as the impermanent and eternal crucible of sustenance and shame, tears and laughter.

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