NJT launches 2007 season with its first Neil Simon play

BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

For its first 10 seasons, The New Jewish Theatre under Artistic Director Kathleen Sitzer declined to produce any plays by Neil Simon, perhaps the most successful popular Jewish playwright. Sitzer told the St. Louis Jewish Light in an interview that The New Jewish Theatre wanted to show that there was more to plays with Jewish content besides Neil Simon and Fiddler on the Roof.

To launch its 11th season, NJT is presenting Simon’s Broadway Bound, the third of his trilogy of autobiographical comedy-dramas, of which the first two are Brighton Beach Memoirs and Biloxi Blues. Appearing in the important role of Kate, the mother of the Neil Simon-like Eugene Morris Jerome and his brother Stanley is none other than Kathleen Sitzer herself in a multi-layered, poignant and often powerfully dramatic performance. Indeed, Broadway Bound proves not only Simon’s comedic stage genius, but his under-appreciated skills as a serious dramatist. Simon has not only won three Tony Awards, but he also received a Pulitzer Prize in Drama for his play Lost in Yonkers.

Among Simon’s 28 plays and several film screenplays, the autobiographical “Eugene Trilogy” perhaps contain more serious lines than funny lines, although there are plenty of those as well. Audiences expecting the non-stop laughs of such Simon classics as The Odd Couple may be jolted by the suddenness and power of many of the scenes in the longish two-act play. Eugene Morris Jerome is as close to Marvin Neil Simon as Nathan Zuckerman is to Philip Roth in several of his novels, or as Quentin is to Arthur Miller in After the Fall. In this sense, Broadway Bound is closer in tone to Simon’s Chapter Two, which is frankly based on Simon’s “bounce-back” marriage to actress Marsha Mason after the death of his first wife Ellen.

Like the first two plays in the triology, Broadway Bound takes place in 1949 in Brighton Beach, N.Y., a section of Brooklyn next to Coney Island. The play is described as “a unique blend of late forties optimism with the ceaseless yearning for the American dream in a first generation American household.” Brighton Beach Memoirs was an affectionate look back on Eugene’s childhood and adolescence, and his close relationship with his big brother Stanley. Biloxi Blues comedically described the young Jewish recruit’s experiences in the U.S. Army base in Biloxi, Miss. Broadway Bound, by far the most serious of the trilogy, focuses on the efforts by the Jerome brothers to break into serious radio comedy writing. In real life, Simon was to write for the likes of Phil Silvers, just as the brothers in the play do after their initial modest success, and later for the classic TV show Your Show of Shows with Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca and Carl Reiner. Simon’s fellow comedy writers included Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Dick Cavett and Larry Gelbart, a veritable “Manhattan Project” of comedic talent.

Andrew Keller is almost perfect in the role of Eugene Morris Jerome, and Christopher Hickey is also excellent as the hyperactive, ultra-nervous Stanley.

The dreams of the brothers to make into big time comedy writing are encouraged when the aggressively ambitious Stanley gets the brothers an audition for a second tier comedy show. The efforts of the brothers are juxtaposed to the ongoing family melodrama. It seems that their mother Kate (Kathleen Sitzer) and father Jack Jerome (Jerry Russo in a believable, textured performance) are experiencing marital difficulties, perhaps involving infidelity on Jack’s part. Kate’s father Ben (Bob Barr in a terrific portrayal), an elderly, cantankerous Trotskyite Socialist, is living in the Jerome household, while his wife prepares to move to Florida, where he refuses to go. Meanwhile, Kate’s sister Blanche (Ruth E. Heyman in a lively, engaging performance), who has married a wealthy man, is attempting to convince Ben to move to Florida with his estranged wife.

Needless to say, the various sub-plots involving the crack-up of a marriage, the struggles of the Jerome Brothers to make it big in show business and move out of the confines of their tense household, and the struggles among Ben, Kate and Blanche provide ample dramatic situations. The scenes between Kate and Jack as their marriage falls apart, and a confrontation between Jack and his sons over a comedy sketch which Jack feels humliates and mocks him are theatrically quite strong, and the actors, under the skilled direction of Gary Wayne Barker, rise to the occasion in every scene.

There are to be sure laughs aplenty to reduce the sting of some of the emotional confrontation scenes, and a number of humorous Jewish references. When Eugene describes taking his girlfriend Josie ice skating and falling down eight times and coming home with a fever, he says, “Jewish guys are just not good at sports played between September and April.” When Kate describes her immigrant parents crying at the sight of the Statue of Liberty, she brings a laugh by saying the tears were based on fear that Miss Liberty was not a Jewish woman. There are also references to the joys and agonies of writing under pressure. “I love being a writer,” Stanley says. “It’s the writing that’s so hard.” The play also touches on the dilemma of writers who write best what they know best, but the people on whom they base their writing do not always appreciate how they are portrayed in their work. Eugene sees himself as being a combination of a “likeable, fun-loving kid,” and the other part of him which can be mean-spirited and disrespectful.

Simon also reveals just how scary writing can be, even for one as prolific as he is, when the two brothers struggle mightily all night to produce a comedy sketch for the CBS Television audition. Simon himself, in an interview with Paul Zimmerman in Newsweek in 1970, confessed, “Every time I start a play, I panic because I feel I don’t know how to do it. I keep wishing I had a grown up in the room who could tell me how to begin. I still have all the fears I had in the beginning. I just hide them better now….If I stop writing plays, I’ve got nothing left to do. It’s the only way I have of finding out what life is all about.”

It’s about time that The New Jewish Theatre got around to producing a Neil Simon play, and they could not have made a better choice to launch their 2007-2008 season than this superb production of Broadway Bound.

(Broadway Bound completes its run at The New Jewish Theatre at the Jewish Community Center’s Wohl Building, 2 Millstone Campus Drive, on Oct. 28. Call 314-442-3283 or visit www.newjewishtheatre.org for ticket information.)

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