The career of Neil Simon nestles neatly between two periods of daring exploration. He followed Beckett and Ionesco, toiling away writing for television while they made a revolution. When his turn came, he achieved stardom, then maintained relevance until Kushner, Durang, and the inevitable next generation of White male playwrights was ready to claim its place of privilege. Simon, in between, unapologetically cranked out 20 years’ worth of light comedies which became smash hits. Later, as fresh ideas grew scarce, he turned inward. Simon’s autobiographical triptych of “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” “Biloxi Blues,” and “Broadway Bound” recalled his youth. The last of these alliterative offerings appears on Vagabonds’ stage this month, directed by Steve Goldklang.
This production shows a trademark exquisite attention to detail, and a clear, logical sense of pace and placement.
In “Broadway Bound,” we find brothers Stan (Andy Belt) and Eugene (Isaiah Mason Harvey), a wannabe comedy writing team, living with their parents and grandfather in 1949 Brooklyn. Eugene is Simon’s first-person voice, bridging scenes of family life and early career struggles with direct addresses to the audience. His mother, Kate (Amy Jo Shapiro), is a 52-year-old woman whose marriage is in crisis. Her husband, Jack (Thom Peters), has quiet-quit on his family for reasons that aren’t hard to guess. Kate’s father, Ben (Jeff Murray), is a 77-year-old Trotskyite. Her sister, Blanche (Holly Pasciullo), has married Park Avenue money. Toss these ingredients into a stock pot, and garnish with a few Borscht Belt-ish jokes, and the product is kitchen table melodrama that’s more or less by the book. Simon’s script is well-crafted, naturally, but also highly predictable. It feels like it was written decades earlier, when folks like Lorraine Hansberry and Tennessee Williams trod the same path. But Simon also gives us a few ironic winks: Jack, for instance, browbeats his sons over a radio sketch which borrows too literally from their own family. Apparently, two young men who live with their parents don’t enjoy the same license as a 58-year-old playwright who has a Broadway theater named after him.
Vagabond Players, in general, and Goldklang, in particular, always do wonderful work with dated material. This production shows a trademark exquisite attention to detail, and a clear, logical sense of pace and placement. Its designers have created a world based in precise realism. Roy Steinman’s set and Maeve Koch’s costumes and props are extremely thoughtful. Lighting by Joel Seltzer is highly effective and efficient. None of these elements grab attention (it isn’t that kind of play). Instead, they provide exactly the right support. Stephen Deininger’s sound design includes the fun challenge of creating a radio sketch comedy, which is very realistic and nicely executed.
The show also benefits from a very strong cast. Pasciullo delivers a monologue in the first act about her difficult relationship with Ben that’s steeped in truth and urgency. In the second act, Kate tells a richly evocative story of the time when she was 17 and danced with George Raft (who, puzzlingly, was known as the greatest ballroom dancer in New York despite being 13 years old at the time). It is in these monologues where Goldklang’s actors do their best work. It’s a common trap for heavy speechifying to become soliloquy, but these performers rely upon and engage with their scene partners. Murray (with Pasciullo) and Harvey (with Shapiro) are stunning as they wordlessly buoy the energy during those moments. Harvey’s Eugene, when serving as ringmaster, carries a quiet excitement—sort of like Tom Wingfield in a better mood. As Stan, Belt does a nice job as the caged-lion functionary who realizes that his place in the partnership is not on the creative end of things. Murray, as Ben, is firmly aware of his responsibility for comic relief in the piece and doesn’t disappoint. Jack, Ben’s son-in-law, is a villain who is almost forgivable in Peters’ hands. Almost.
Running time: Two hours and 31 minutes with one intermission.
“Broadway Bound” runs through January 29th, 2023 at Vagabond Players, 806 South Broadway, Baltimore, MD 21231. Tickets are available online. Masks are required while inside the building. Proof of vaccination is not required.