I’m a big fan of local theater for the same reasons I’m a big fan of local government — when it’s firing on all cylinders, you really see the best of a community at work. Off-Broadstreet Theater’s production of Neil Simon’s “Broadway Bound” is a sterling example of this. It’s six fine actors at work, deftly directed, telling a story that stands as an American classic comedy with eerily modern echoes in its family dynamics and perspectives.
“Broadway Bound” is the final installment in Simon’s Eugene trilogy, following the semi-autobiographical story of Eugene Jerome, a Brighton Beach-raised aspiring writer, as he comes into his own voice and maturity. The prior installments deal with Eugene’s formative years (“Brighton Beach Memoirs”) and brief military service (“Biloxi Blues”) and are perhaps the better known and more popular chapters of Eugene’s story. Here, Eugene (Brady Niederer) sits on the cusp of radio stardom in the late 1940s, as he and his brother, Stanley, begin writing for the CBS Comedy Hour, which airs on Saturday nights, scribbling sketches together from the tiny bedrooms of their family’s Brighton Beach home. Eugene’s story takes a surprising backseat in this autobiography, however; his parents’ marriage is on the brink of dissolution, with his father’s infidelities the worst-kept secret on the block, and his mother, Kate, struggling valiantly to keep her household, her own father’s health, and her dignity intact.
The play bowed on Broadway in late 1986, starring, among other notables, Jason Alexander and Linda Lavin, who was replaced late in the run by Joan Rivers. It received several Tony nominations and a Pulitzer nomination, but never really caught on in the American pop-culture psyche the way some of Simon’s other works have. My guess is that this play was ahead of its time: Neil Simon is best known for warm humor and a broad, bittersweet sentimentality, and “Broadway Bound” has both of those traits in volumes. But it also has a great deal of subtlety and shading that almost seem to carry trace amounts of Arthur Miller.
The play offers no easy answers and doesn’t prompt the audience towards laughter or tears in steadily gauged increments. It’s messy in the best sense of the word. Life is complicated, and often funny, and without clear and easy answers. Here we have a thoroughly enjoyable comedy laced with and carefully directed with an eye towards human frailty.
The most intriguing thing about this play is that the subject of the autobiography finally gets out of his own way. Eugene remains our narrator and observer, but the play’s heavy lifting rests on the graceful, capable shoulders of Kathy Garofano’s Kate. The Jerome family’s matriarch is alternately a firm supporter of her sons, caretaker of her father (Doug Kline), and self-preservationist in light of her husband’s faltering.
Garofano’s Kate is a creature of fearsome strength and wry humor, a bundle of attractive contradictions. Late in the second act, we’re treated to a gorgeous mother-son scene where she recounts an evening at the Primrose Ballroom to her son, and it becomes evident exactly where Eugene’s storytelling gifts came from.
Kate’s sister, played ably by Derri Light, also brings a sharp counterpoint to the story. In “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” Blanche and her two daughters move in with the Jeromes, following the death of her husband and financial ruin. In “Broadway Bound” Blanche has remarried — her new husband is one of the richest jewelers in the city, and the couple lives on Park Avenue, caring for mother Kate, as Kate does for her father. The sisters’ differing financial situations set up an intriguing dynamic involving their Trotsky-espousing father, as gentle hints of have-and-have-not class warfare lurk in the background of age-old family arguments.
A big chunk of Kate’s charm is present in the writing; it’s Garofano’s incredible abilities, however, that bring her to life. This is Garofano’s first role on Off-Broadstreet’s stage, and she is the kind of facile character actor that a smart community-based theater would do well to base an entire season around. I want to see Garofano’s Auntie Mame, her Amanda Wingfield, her Emilia in “Othello,” and any number of roles in various Noel Coward plays. She’s a find — and a real gem in this production. My only real quibble with this play is that Brady Niederer’s Eugene gets the final bow, when it really should be hers.
OBT’s production of “Broadway Bound” takes a lesser-known but still important Neil Simon work, shines it up, and shows off the best parts of Simon’s talents. The cast is wonderful with a marvel at its lead in Garofano. It’s well worth your time, with or without the wonderful desserts included in OBT’s price of admission.
“Broadway Bound,” Off-Broadstreet Theater, 5 South Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell. Through, Saturday, February 4. The third play of Neil Simon’s autobiographical comedies recalls growing up in New York. $29.50 to $31.50 includes dessert. 609-466-2766 or www.off-broadstreet.com.