NJT mounts superb production of Neil Simon’s ‘Broadway Bound’

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GERRY KOWARSKY, Special To The Jewish Light

The New Jewish Theatre has begun its 2023 season with a superb staging of Neil Simon’s “Broadway Bound.”

The play is the third installment of Simon’s autobiographical Eugene Trilogy. In 2019, NJT presented the trilogy’s opening play, “Brighton Beach Memoirs.” It received the St. Louis Theater Circle Awards for Outstanding Production of a Comedy and Outstanding Set Design in a Play.

NTJ’s “Broadway Bound” reunites much of the creative team of “Brighton Beach Memoirs.” The director, three actors, and three designers are back.

The Eugene trilogy is based on Simon’s adolescence and early adulthood. His alter ego, Eugene Morris Jerome, is a teenager in “Brighton Beach Memoirs.” “Biloxi Blues” covers his basic training during World War II. No one else in Eugene’s family appears in “Biloxi Blues,” so NJT’s decision to omit this part of the trilogy is understandable.

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“Broadway Bound” takes place in 1949. Eugene is back at his family’s Brooklyn home, which he shares with his parents, older brother and grandfather. Eugene and his brother, Stan, are aspiring comedy writers. They spend much of the first act trying to write a sketch as an audition piece for a job at CBS. At one point, Stan asks, “What’s the essential ingredient in every good sketch we’ve ever seen?” He answers his own question: “Conflict.” It is an essential ingredient in “Broadway Bound,” too.

The sketch Eugene and Stan are writing is a huge source of conflict between them. The writing process is agonizing for the brothers but fun for the audience to watch. In the second act, Eugene and Stan discover how hurtful their writing can be when they base comic characters on members of their family.

Jacob Flekier deftly handles his double role as narrator and central character. His Eugene is instantly likable. Spencer Kruse finds the humor in Stanley’s obsessive worrying.

Conflict breaks out between Eugene’s mother, Kate, and his father, Jack, when she confronts him about his relationship with another woman. Simon portrays the marital rift without demonizing either spouse. Jenni Ryan as Kate and Chuck Brinkley as Jack make their characters decent, sympathetic people who cannot do what is required to save their marriage.

Another major conflict arises when Kate’s father, Ben Epstein, receives a visit from his younger daughter, Blanche. She and her husband have opened their Park Avenue apartment to Ben’s wife. Ben still lives with Kate because he is a committed socialist and refuses accept luxuries that are not available to ordinary people.

Now Ben’s wife has been told to move to Florida for her health. Blanche has come to her father with another offer of help, but he still refuses to benefit from society’s unequal distribution of wealth. Bob Harvey plays Ben with unrelenting commitment to his political ideals. Christina Rios’s heartrending portrayal of Blanche captures the anguish she must endure because her husband’s success has driven a wedge between Blanche and her father.

Margery and Peter Spack’s scenic design is the same one they created for “Brighton Beach Memoirs.” The astonishingly realistic, two-level set has two doors at opposite ends of the house. After making their entrances, the actors must walk a long way in front of the set to reach one of the doors. These strolls have a purpose. The excellent actors use them to establish their characters’ state of mind. This telling use of silence is one of many astute touches in Alan Knoll’s masterly direction. It is ideally attuned to both the drama and the comedy in Simon’s script.

Michele Friedman Siler’s costumes and Katie Orr’s props are well suited to the play’s period. Kimberly Klearman Petersen’s effective lighting is based on Michael Sullivan’s design for “Brighton Beach Memoirs.” Kareem Deanes’ sound design features engaging radio broadcasts. One of them cleverly uses an old-time radio format to enliven the usual preshow announcements.

In the play’s most memorable episode, Kate tells Eugene about the night she danced with actor George Raft. Ryan, Flekier and choreographer Ellen Isom make the most of this wonderful scene.