Neil Simon plays don’t get any finer than his semi-autobiographical 1986 dramedy Broadway Bound, nor intimate theater revivals any more flawless than the Broadway Bound revival now playing at West L.A.’s Odyssey Theatre under Jason Alexander’s inspired direction.
Simon’s 20th Broadway play has the master scribe reminiscing about his last days as a live-at-home son and the earliest days of his TV/stage/film writing career. The third installment in his “Eugene Trilogy,” the Best Play Tony nominee is not only one of Simon’s undisputed masterworks, it may well be his most masterful of all. (I rank it even higher than the Pulitzer Prize-winning Lost In Yonkers.)
The current 99-seat-plan Odyssey production reunites three of the stars of last September’s big-stage Broadway Bound revival at the La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts—Ian Alda as 23-year-old Simon stand-in Eugene Jerome, Gina Hecht as Eugene’s Brighton Beach housewife mom Kate, and Allan Miller as Kate’s Trotsy-loving live-in father Ben, then adds to the mix Noah James as Eugene’s cocky older brother Stanley, Michael Mantell as the boys’ garment manufacturer father Jack, and Betsy Zajko as Kate’s moved-on-up-to-a-deluxe-apartment-in-the-sky sister Blanche—the sextet making for as pitch-perfect a cast as any director could wish for, let alone one with the stage-and-screen credentials of Broadway-and-Seinfeld star Alexander.
Eugene is no longer the callow teenager of Brighton Beach Memoirs when we are reunited circa 1949 with the fledgling scribe and his older bro as the duo scramble to complete an audition script for CBS radio, one they hope will jump-start their careers as comedy writers.
The Jerome boys’ Brooklyn home still looks pretty much the same as it did in 1937, with Eugene and Stanley occupying side-by-side upstairs bedrooms and the boys’ working-class parents Jack and Kate still as amusingly sense-of-humorless downstairs, though this time round their socialist grandfather Ben gets added to the family mix, the septuagenarian having recently moved in with daughter and son-in-law rather than accompany his wife to warmer Florida climes.
Broadway Bound gives us an older, wiser Eugene than the one we first met in Eugene Trilogy 1, a young man beginning to see his family through adult eyes, in particular his parents’ increasingly rocky relationship, even as he and Stanley continue to squabble like teenagers while struggling through the night to complete their first radio script by its rapidly approaching deadline.
Unlike the earlier, fluffier Neil Simon stuff of the 1960s (Come Blow Your Horn, Barefoot In The Park, The Odd Couple), the master playwright had, by Broadway Bound’s 1986 Broadway debut, already begun to explore life’s darker sides, though no previous Simon play had blended comedy and drama more seamlessly, nor done so in a way that made the transition from one genre to the other more believable, than Broadway Bound, as La Mirada audiences discovered this past September.
Still, as Broadway-caliber as that production was, Broadway Bound at the Odyssey benefits from the weeks’-more rehearsal a 99-seat-plan production can afford along with an intimate setting that, regardless of the Simon classic’s written-for-Broadway roots, allows the Odyssey audience a flies-on-the-wall POV (and the Jerome family a real-life-sized apartment) that a 1251-seat theater simply cannot.
And brilliant as Alda, Hecht, and Miller were last September, their performances have acquired new subtleties and shadings over time—and under Alexander’s spot-on direction. The entire first chunk of the play has the tri-generational trio establishing the Jerome family dynamics—Eugene, the wry observer, Kate, the patiently-suffering wife-and-mother, and Ben, the sense-of-humor-challenged grandpa with the best (albeit unintentional) comedy timing in town, and the three stage pros’ performances couldn’t have a more multi-dimensional, lived-in feel.
Later, when it’s just Alda and Hecht up late at night, the 50something mom recalling to her 20something son her teen self dancing one unforgettable tango with film star George Raft before ending the scene with a Lee Martino-choreographed mother-son pas de deux, Hecht is mesmerizing, Alda mesmerized, and the entire sequence magic.
Still, much of this reviewer’s excitement at the Odyssey revival comes from seeing how the new blood James, Mantell, and Zajko bring to the project serves to energize returnees Alda, Hecht, and Miller in ways that a full-cast reunion might not.
The marvelous Mantell captures every iota of Jack’s mournful dissatisfaction with what he considers a dismal, doomed life (should he not make his escape) and—in a scene played out wordlessly on the actor’s expressive face—the anger, disappointment, and sense of betrayal that gradually sets in as a father listens to his sons’ first comedy broadcast.
Four-time Best Ensemble Scenie-winner Zajko has but one scene as Blanche, but makes such an unforgettable impression that the memory of this woman who never asked for (but thoroughly enjoys) her Upper East Side life lingers on throughout the rest of Broadway Bound.
Finally, there is newcomer James’ electric performance as Energizer-bunny Stanley, an exciting star turn that begins the minute James’ first entrance lights up the Odyssey stage and never wavers, burning particularly bright when James’ ball-of-fire extrovert meets the equally wonderful Alda’s introspective, introverted Eugene, sparks crackling in a symbiotic fraternal relationship that simply could not be more real.
Like its superb cast and director, the Odyssey revival’s outstanding production design belies any notion of L.A. 99-seat-plan theater’s mythical “mediocrity.”
Scenic designer Bruce Goodrich brings to the Odyssey the same attention to detail that he did in creating the Jerome home at La Mirada, albeit on a more realistic, intimate scale, and Leigh Allen lights Goodrich’s set (and Katherine S. Hunt’s period-perfect props) to subtle perfection. Kate Bergh’s costumes could not more accurately reflect either the play’s timeframe or the Jeromes’ personalities and budgets. Sound designer Martín Carrillo scores high marks as well, particularly in recreating the voices and music emanating from a 1940s table radio. And choreographic legend Martino’s tango gives us both a son’s awkwardness and a mother’s practiced albeit rusty grace as Hecht’s Kate reverts ever so gradually into her younger self.
Jennifer Palumbo is stage manager, Donna Hosseinzadh and Amandla Jahava are assistant directors, and John Iacovelli set consultant. Broadway Bound is produced by Ron Sossi in association with Larry Field.
Getting the chance to revisit Simon’s masterpiece for the first time since its 1988 National Tour stopped in L.A. was already a thrill for this longtime theatergoer back in September. A return visit to Brighton Beach eleven months later with this cast and this director and these designers making intimate theater magic is manna from theatrical heaven.
Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 South Sepulveda Boulevard, Los Angeles.
August 20, 2014
Photos: Enci, Ron Sossi