Go to see Live Theatre Workshop's production of Broadway Bound, and you'll get the wrong idea about Neil Simon. You'll come away thinking that Simon knows how to subordinate gags to character and storytelling, that he can deliver scenes of tenderness without falling too far into sentimentality, that he can write sensitively about a woman who is no longer young and was never fashionable, that he will with the greatest integrity give a director and actors material of substance while remaining first and foremost an able entertainer.
The Neil Simon at Live Theatre Workshop is not the Borscht Belt-on-Broadway middlebrow comedy factory who built his career on easy laughs. This Neil Simon is the author of three funny and sincere semiautobiographical plays about coming of age in the 1940s, beginning with Brighton Beach Memoirs (produced by the University of Arizona last summer and fall) and continuing with Biloxi Blues (coming this summer from the UA). Broadway Bound concludes the trilogy, closes the seriocomic saga of the Jerome family and provides that rarest of things, a strong role for a middle-aged actress.
Oh, the old familiar Simon is present in the person of young Eugene, a font of never-malicious wisecracks who is maturing beyond the protection of his increasingly troubled family. Eugene and older brother, Stanley, are trying to break into showbiz as TV and radio comedy writers, and after many dead ends, they figure out that their best material is right there at home, documenting the travails of their put-upon Jewish mother, their overworked and largely absent father, and their seemingly humorless Trotskyite grandfather.
Unfortunately, there's less and less to laugh about in the Jerome household. Mother Kate and father Jack are becoming estranged, while increasingly decrepit Grandpa is resisting pressure from another daughter to join his ex-wife in Miami.
In Broadway Bound, Eugene and Stanley struggle to come up with a good broadcast comedy sketch that will impress their parents, but although this occupies a lot of stage time, it's really just a subplot. The heart of the play is the disintegration of the parents' marriage, and here, Simon eschews the easy one-liners in order to tell a serious if all-too-common story.
Director Sabian Trout and actress Peg Peterson make this Kate's play, fundamentally. Both women take Kate seriously, which is not too difficult because Simon thankfully doesn't load her down with much Jewish-mother shtick. Peterson's best moments form the core of the second act: She's wounded but not broken in a confrontation over Jack's infidelity, and bittersweet in her reminiscence of the night, long ago, when she danced with actor George Raft. At last, Kate shows her soft, gentle side, and there's nothing disconcerting about it; Peterson simply peels away the brittle onion skin to reveal a tender layer that was there all along.
Travis Martin makes a fine impression as Eugene, coming off as something of a young, better-looking, Jewish John Malkovich (think of the latter's early Death of a Salesman phase). When Eugene confesses, "There's a part of my head that makes me this nice, likable, funny kid ... and there's the other part, the part that writes, that's ... angry, hostile," this is a surprise, because Martin hasn't shown us the angry side, but then Simon hasn't let him. Despite all his wisecracks, he's essentially an innocent; that's what Simon gives us, and that's what Martin emphasizes.
Cliff Madison looks a bit too old to play Eugene's brother, Stanley, but Madison has a good rapport with Martin and makes his character seem a proper comic partner for Eugene, which would be hard to guess from how Simon presented him back in Brighton Beach Memoirs.
Ed Fuller redeems his stock character of the querulous Jewish grandfather with sharp comic timing, and Carolyn Marbry is serious but not sanctimonious in the smallish role of Aunt Blanche, who wants to send Grandpa to Miami for his own good. Bill Epstein is properly conflicted if a bit distant as the father, Jack. Epstein has developed a habit of not maintaining eye contact with his fellow actors, nor even with the audience during his curtain calls. There's some justification for this in Jack's exchanges with Kate, but Epstein has been doing this so routinely that here, it seems merely the mannerism of an actor who is more engaged with his lines than with the people around him.
Add to all the other positive elements a solid, sensible set that manages to fit the boys' upstairs bedroom into a limited stage space, and you get one of the most fully successful productions in Live Theatre Workshop's current season.