As self-conscious plays go, Neil Simon’s Broadway Bound is both a self-fulfilling prophesy and a cross-examination of the creative process.
The play, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award in 1987, is the final and lesser-known installment of Simon’s quasi-autobiographical Eugene trilogy, following Brighton Beach Memoirs and Biloxi Blues. Across the series, Eugene Morris Jerome, a Polish-American quipster, ages from a frisky 15 through basic training during World War II to a 27-year-old at the cusp of his career.
1st Stage’s emotion-fueled production brings this “third stage” of a writer’s launch to a rocketing, if alienating, conclusion.
“I love being a writer. It’s just the writing that’s hard,” declares Stanley Jerome, who has “faith enough for both” him and his daft-disciple younger brother, Eugene, in their dreams to land a comedy-writing gig – anything to support a move out of their Brooklyn childhood home into New York City and an imagined celebrity lifestyle with showgirls galore.
Inspiration for any writer, though, flows from characters one knows all too well. So when the duo finally lands a debut on Chubby Waters’ radio show for CBS and gathers the family ’round the radio hearth, it’s no surprise these colorful characters recognize themselves and spew far from hoped-for reactions. The conflict and desires of each – key ingredients for any good story, Stanley says – get peeled back and help the boys discover sad truths about their parents’ withering 33-year marriage.
The saddest truth: It’s not so much the things we say to each other that sting, but those things left unsaid that do the worst damage.
There is something ever boyish about Eugene – he is both younger and more jaded than his years. And 1st Stage’s Noah Schaefer portrays him with pitch-perfect bemusement.
Director Shirley Serotsky moves him around the stage like a cheeky pawn, peeking through the fourth wall to keep the audience conspiratorially engaged. And yet he doesn’t break out of the narrative; it’s more about us breaking in, being invited into the parlor of the cozy, convincing, two-story 1949-era set designed by Jonathan Dahm Robertson.“What a set! I could live there,” one patron commented.
Sound Designer Jeffrey Dorfman, who deposits Schaefer on his mark at the start of the play via a train accompaniment, also provides cinematic realism each time a door opens or a radio dial is wrung. Lighting designed by Brittany Shemuga is also smartly timed and sentimental, with props to Deb Crerie for the mismatched lamps, vintage radios and household stuffing, as well as to Stage Manager Kathryn Dooley for keeping all the trains running on time.
“Not Jewish enough,” another patron lamented, in assessing the stoic, resigned housewife at the heart of the play. Yet the understated wanhope in Teresa Castracane’s portrayal of Kate Jerome, Eugene’s mother, is polished and pure – making her not just a Jewish mother desperately proud of her sons but the universal matriarch. In the writing, her part is dated and depressing, but she gives the work needed lift during a second-act Cinderella soliloquy.
It becomes hit-the-nerves heartbreaking, but thankfully also offers uproarious moments in the traditional Neil Simon vein. “Gramps” Ben Epstein, a socialist-leaning 77-year-old, is the resident sage – “Wisdom doesn’t come with age; wisdom comes with wisdom!” – and Stan Shulman imbues warmth and comedic cushioning.
Scott Ward Abernethy — as big brother Stan, the “Jewish Clark Gable” –opens his shtick a bit over-the-top, a la a carnival barker. But eventually the story meets him at his level, and we are relieved, by Act Two, to embrace his razzmatazz riffing. His ultimate showdown with father Jack, a dynamite Andy Brownstein whose every move expresses tightly wound weariness, is an Oedipus Rex moment once-removed – the moment Eugene finally gains his manhood.
Ultimately, 1st Stage’s Broadway Bound is a peek inside the mind of a writer and a defense of the home front – where almost all of our internal conflicts spawn and, one hopes, are eventually won. Don’t miss it!
Running Time: Three hours, including a 20-minute intermission.
Broadway Bound plays through December 18, 2016, at 1st Stage — 1524 Spring Hill Road, in Tysons, VA — steps from the Silver Line’s Springhill metro stop. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 854-1856, or purchase them online.