By CHUCK GRAHAM
There’s an extra-special amount of heart in the Live Theatre Workshop production of Neil Simon’s “Broadway Bound.” This is the play that won Simon the respect of New York’s hardened theater critics – those cynical second-guessers who kept saying Simon was funny, but his plays were superficial.
“Broadway Bound” changed all that when it opened in 1986.
Neil Simon came of age as a playwright late in life. He was nearly 50. Oddly enough, he did it by writing about his own adolescence and early manhood in the 1940s in the trilogy “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” “Biloxi Blues” and this capper, “Broadway Bound.” Here we find Simon in the guise of boyish Eugene joining his ambitious older brother Stanley to form a comedy writing team.
Being young men without a lot of life experience, Stanley and Eugene look to their own working-class Brighton Beach family for material – in particular, their hard-working father, who has been diligently going to work every day all his adult life to be a good provider.
Director Sabian Trout lets the jokes look out for themselves, while she dives directly into the heart of the conflict – the breakup of the parents’ marriage just as the two sons are getting their start in big-time radio. It becomes an impressive display of dramatic tension.
Travois Martin as Eugene – the Neil Simon character – gives the eager lad a fresh-faced preppy quality. Stanley (Cliff Madison) is older and all business about becoming a successful comedy writer. If it wasn’t for Stanley, we can easily imagine Eugene would have gone into advertising.
Stanley had the drive. Eugene had the funny mind full of hilarious one-liners. We have no idea how true to life this familial distribution of labor might be, but within the play it works beautifully. Eugene is innocent. Stanley is calculating. Together they are hilarious.
Ed Fuller as Ben, the grandfather and dedicated socialist, adds historical perspective.
But the real substance to this production of “Broadway Bound” is in the wrenching performances of Peg Peterson as Kate and Bill Epstein as Jack – the troubled parents. Their scene together, which pulls back painful layers of repressed guilt, is one of this year’s theatrical high points.
Peterson and Epstein are successful at depicting this couple – into their 50s and reluctant to believe life has passed them by. Their performances will resonate with everyone who thinks they might be risking the same fate; that they might be counted as people who were always responsible folk doing the right thing, never rocking the boat, always advising the young to forget their silly dreams and start making plans for a realistic future by getting a good job, then getting married.
But just as the traditional parents Kate and Jack are starting to feel comfortably familiar, Simon turns “Broadway Bound” on its head. Kate and Jack become real people who willingly sacrificed their dreams so their children could have bigger dreams. Did they really do the right thing? Should they have kept a few joys for themselves?
What if Eugene and Stanley are dreaming too big? Kate and Jack have played it safe for so long . . .
Meanwhile, energetic Eugene and Stanley couldn’t care less. They’re telling jokes. They’re writing skits. Eugene is worrying about his girlfriend. The parents and the children become two freight trains of compressed desires heading straight for each other and don’t even know it.
The crash comes when the whole family sits around the radio listening to the CBS broadcast of the first comedy routines Eugene and Stanley have written. Kate and Jack recognize their problems in many of the jokes. That isn’t funny.
if you go
What: Live Theatre Workshop presents “Broadway Bound” by Neil Simon.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, to March 19
Where: 5317 E. Speedway Blvd.
How much: $13-$16
Details: For reservations, call 327-4242.