Legendary American playwright and screenwriter Neil Simon died in August at the age of 91. One of the most performed writers of our time, his ‘Eugene Trilogy’ (a series of semi-autobiographical plays) was first staged over four years in the 1980s. Following Brighton Beach Memoirs and Biloxi Blues, the concluding piece, Broadway Bound, premiered in 1986 and went on to win two Tony Awards. It was also a Pulitzer Prize finalist for Drama and, in 1992, arrived on the small screen in a made-for-TV film directed by Paul Bogart.
Sydney’s New Theatre has just opened its own production of Simon’s Broadway Bound, the final work programmed in its 2018 season. Set in 1949, it’s the story of a working class Jewish family living in New York City’s Brighton Beach. Twenty-three-year-old Eugene (Patrick Holman) and his older brother, Stanley (Simon Lee), aspire to have careers as professional comedy writers. One day, Stanley returns home and excitedly reveals to the family he’s secured an opportunity for he and Eugene to audition to write sketches for CBS. They land a gig on a national radio show but when it goes to air, their parents and grandfather believe the boys have made a mockery of them by having created characters and situations based on life in their own home.
In this coming of age piece, the brothers’ initial steps towards success in comedy occur at a time when they’re beginning to see the fundamental and longstanding problems in their parents’ marriage (caused, in large part, by their father’s infidelity). At the same time, their grandfather, Ben (Les Asmussen), is also living in the family home and, as he becomes increasingly frail, causes his daughter worry by refusing to join his wife (her mother) in relocating to Florida.
These events all afford Eugene and Stan an insight into the complexities of life, demonstrating that unlike the world of comedy in which they work, all episodes in the real world don’t necessarily culminate in a satisfactory conclusion.
Directed by Rosane McNamara, New Theatre’s Broadway Bound is a solid staging of a Simon classic. McNamara does well in navigating the shift in the piece from moments of real comedy to those with a more sombre tone and guides her cast towards believable portrayals of the Jerome family members. Holman’s Eugene is youthful and defined by an inherent affability. Lee impresses as Eugene’s fretful and ambitious brother, Stanley, determined to ensure the duo’s rapid rise as writers and trying to come to terms with the state of his parents’ relationship.
As patriarch and garment worker, Jack, Brett Heath portrays a man profoundly unhappy and struggling with his decision as to which path to take forward. His Jack is selfish and frustrating, but also beleaguered, and that helps us to understand his ultimate decision. Susan Jordan makes a brief but memorable appearance as Blanche Morton, Kate’s well-to-do sister who lives on Park Avenue, and Asmussen succeeds as the scatty but sensitive socialist who’s become entrenched in the household.
And then there’s Suzann James as Kate, a middle-aged mother, loving and supportive, but also distrait and anxious about her relationship with Jack and the uncertainty of their future. James particularly shines while regaling Eugene with the story of her most memorable evening as a teenager, when she was asked to dance by famous film actor George Raft. This is a wonderfully performed scene.
Cast members have varying degrees of success with the New York accent, and Holam and Lee arguably wear it best. Overall, however, this is a group that convinces as a family unit of a New York neighbourhood of the late 1940s.
Allan Walpole’s set depicts the interior of the Jerome family home, complete with separate bedrooms for each of the brothers, and it’s well scaled to the roomy New Theatre stage. David Marshall-Martin’s costumes instantly evoke a sense of the period and place, while Mehan Mortezaei’s lighting choices are simple but consistently appropriate.
Neil Simon has entertained global audiences with his many theatrical works for over seven decades. New Theatre’s Broadway Bound is a great introduction to the playwright for the unacquainted, and for Simon fans, it’s an opportunity to re-visit a classic play from his extensive collection. It does remind us of unmet hopes and expectations but, as Simon himself once said, “I love living, I have some problems with my life, but living is the best thing they’ve come up with so far.”
BROADWAY BOUND – SEASON DETAILS
Dates: Playing now until 15 December, 2018
Times: Thu – Sat 7:30pm; Sun 5pm; Sat 15 Dec 2pm only
Tickets: $35 full; $30 concessions & groups (6+); $20 Thrifty Thursdays