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"Broadway Bound": Home is Where the Heart Is

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◊◊◊◊ 1/2 out of five.  2 hours, 40 minutes, including intermission.  Adult language. 

Of the three "B" plays by Neil Simon, Broadway Bound is probably the least produced.  Maybe it is because producers feel that audiences need to see the first - Brighton Beach Memoirs - to understand the third.  (Biloxi Blues pretty much stands on its own.)  If the beautiful production of Broadway Bound which opened last weekend at Fells Point Corner Theatre is any indication, the truth is that this play stands on its own as well.  You don't need to know anything about the Jerome family from the previous plays to fully understand and enjoy this play.  The two plays have almost nothing to do with each other aside from sharing many of the same characters.  Neil Simon has a gift for giving audiences palatable bits of wisdom wrapped up in homespun, reality based humor, and this play has that in spades.  So it may come as somewhat of a surprise to audiences that this play is as much serious American drama as it is funny.   

Yes, the tradeMark Simon humor is there.  The hysteria of two brothers writing a comedy sketch with an unbelievable due date, mixed with the panic of writer's block offers an extended scene of snappy, razor sharp repartee in act one, while the start of act two, a frenzy of excitement just trying to get the whole family to sit in front of a radio, is textbook situation comedy/farce.  And those are but two examples.  On the other hand, unlike vintage Simon - say, The Odd Couple - this is not a cavalcade of comedy.  No, this play is infused with the greatest of all dramatic conflicts, the family dynamic.  Somewhat autobiographical, one can almost sense the catharsis the playwright must have felt in dealing with a painful parental breakup at the very time his own life was beginning to take off on its own - career, serious romance, and moving out for the first time.  The blessing here is that, under the smart direction of Steve Goldklang, this production has the perfect balance of laughs, tears and sentiment, all without getting preachy or syrupy sweet. 

Mr. Goldklang guides his cast with a sure hand through the above mentioned comic scenes, and with a surer, if less noticeable, hand (an excellent thing) in the more intimate scenes.  Act two is a series of brilliant theatrical moments that will alternately leave you angry, relieved, touched and aching.  One of such moments that stand out is a powerful confrontation between the father and his two sons, where both parties are seeking approval and neither are leaving satisfied.  And, naturally, as such moments often do, there are things said that will change life as they know it for good.  A particularly moving scene later has a mother reminiscing about a time when she felt really alive with possibility and had the future ahead of her, while her son helps her to relive a particularly glorious moment in her past.  Those roughly ten minutes had me smiling, laughing and crying.  As we watch the Jerome family at a crossroads, we can't help but reflect on similar times that we have all had.  Thanks to very clear direction, full of minute detail and broad emotional strokes, Mr. Goldklang and company really make Broadway Bound a wholly gratifying evening of theatre - you will leave better than when you arrived. 

Set designer Roy Steinman has created a nice background for this family drama - it feels homey from the very start, a little warn around the edges, but in a comfortable way.  It is amazing that so much set fit this relatively small space.  Like his director, Steinman attends to the smallest details - the dining room table, meant to look heirloom quality and well taken care of, is perfect - but never at the expense of the overall feeling of the piece.  When you walk in the theatre, you know instantly that this is a family space, and family in the truest sense of the word. 

There is no sound technician listed in the program, but whoever is responsible does an excellent job, from the period music (I'm still humming "Sing! Sing! Sing!") to the meticulously recreated old radio sound, so central to the plot that has the two brothers making their debut as writers.  The voice characterizations (Dennis Wood, Larry Malkus and Holly Pasciullo) are spot on, period-perfect, and funny in their own right.  In short, the sound adds a nice touch. 

But what really makes this show work is the cast.  Each member fills the specific need of their character AND the specifics of Simon's script with excellence.  I suppose very few audience members realize just how difficult it is to perform a Neil Simon piece.  It is extremely challenging - not just for the timing required of his lines, but for the emotional openness his scripts demand.  Lisa Hodsoll, as Aunt Blanche, has a small, but important role that sets up the oldest generation's situation.  She handles it with grace and dignity, and comes across as much more than a plot device.  Small parts like these are often difficult to succeed with, but Ms. Hodsoll does very well. 

As the grandfather, Ben, Richard W. Blank has the added pressure of having to behave exactly as described by another character - "Grandpa is funny because he doesn't try to be or know that he is."  And Mr. Blank is quite funny, taking liberties with a dead pan delivery that make his character both charming and exasperating.  The result is a full bodied performance that could have easily been a write-off in less capable hands.  The other patriarch of the family, Jack, is played with understatement by Tony Colavito.  That understatement comes across as sometimes cold, sometimes a coping mechanism, and sometimes a guilt-filled dread.  That he plays all three with a gentle style makes his final confrontation - a ravaging emotional outburst - with his sons a chilling, powerful scene. 

There are two central plots to Broadway Bound - one, the growth of the sons into career men, branching out on their own; the other, the end of a marriage due to an affair.  Important to both, much as a mother would be, is the character of Kate, played in a bravura performance by Amy Jo Shapiro.  Ms. Shapiro's acting is effortless; one never doubts for a moment that she IS Kate Jerome.  Her performance is hallmarked by the fact that she is both a subtle, facial actor and a bold, deeply physical actor at the same time.  One need only watch her at the start of the play, a wordless scene that lasts several minutes while we watch her prepare the table for that institution of family - pot roast dinner.  Ms. Shapiro tells us so much about her character in the way she methodically sets the table, betraying years of doing such a task.  Or maybe she is enlightening us with the slow, tired gait of her walking.  Or maybe it is the almost cold, stoic look on her face that betrays a personal pain and profound sadness.  Actually it is all three.  She is superb in all scenes, but really stands out in a scene where she remembers/reenacts a night that defined her early woman years, a dance with film idol George Raft.  The years melt away, as does the iceberg veneer that darkens her face the rest of the play.  But there is one very specific moment that really tells us so much about Ms. Shapiro's take on Kate.  It is the moment when she proclaims, "No one lets me cook for them anymore!"  In that one exquisite moment, her hear all of the pain, anger and regret of a woman who resigned herself to taking care of others at the expense of her own needs years ago, and now finds that being taken from her as well.  Her performance is one not to be missed. 

The other central relationship in the play is that of Eugene Morris Jerome (a stand-in for Simon) and his brother, Stanley (a stand in for Simon's brother, Danny).  The brothers are struggling to get a break writing - their goal is Broadway, then Hollywood - in the lucrative radio business.  They are finally on their way when Stanley gets them an audition writing for a sketch comedy show.  One can tell from the specificity of the lines and the raw exposure of emotions that Mr. Simon remembers those days clearly.  It helps immensely that the two actors who play them, Chris Krysztofiak (Eugene) and Michael Himelfarb (Stanley) have a natural, brotherly way about them.  I suspect that their affection for each other is somewhat true in real life, for that level of rapport is almost impossible to generate between actors that don't really have some of that.  Both have the Brooklyn Jew patter down with correctness and style, and both have comic delivery that would make Simon proud, I am sure.  Mr. Himelfarb is very natural and excellent at portraying and almost paranoid level of angst and intensity.  At times, his delivery is reminiscent of Jason Alexander (George in Seinfeld), which really works because Alexander originated this role on Broadway.  That is not to say that Mr. Himelfarb is doing his take on Alexander.  No, his performance is a unique blend of several "types" and he is most successful at all of them. 

The glint of joy in Mr. Krysztofiak's eyes belies a true enjoyment for this play and his role.  That gleam is crucial in making a direct connection to the audience, with whom he talks directly as he narrates this latest chapter in Eugene's life.  What is particularly charming about his performance is the balance between boy and young man that he portrays.  Nowhere is this more evident than in that scene with his mother.  Eugene is sick, and needs some mothering like a boy needs, but sees immediately that his mother is in need of some feel good time herself, and so like a caring young man, he coaxes the story out of her, allowing them both time to heal together.  And it is all done with a slight air of finality by Mr. Krysztofiak, who knows that another such close moment will never occur between this mother and son again.  His Borscht Belt timing and laughter-through-pain delivery are excellent.  You might think he is channeling Neil Simon himself! 

They say that home is where the heart is.  This production feels like home - one which we can all relate to: the fights, the turning points, the familiarity, the love.  And this production is full of heart.

Photos by by Amy Jones, courtesy of FPCT: (top - bottom) The Broadway Bound Company; Chris Krysztofiak (Eugene) and Amy Jo Shapiro (Kate); Tony Colavito (Jack) and Richard W. Blank (Ben); Tony Colavito (Jack) and Amy Jo Shapiro (Kate); Michael Himelfarb (Stanley) and Chris Krysztofiak (Eugene)


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