`Broadway Bound' affectingly rounds out Neil Simon trilogy

Broadway Bound Play by Neil Simon. Directed by Gene Saks. Starring Linda Lavin, Jonathan Silverman. Having survived adolesence in ``Brighton Beach Memoirs'' and basic training in ``Biloxi Blues,'' Eugene Morris Jerome returns to the scene of his youth in the conclusion of Neil Simon's semi-autobiographical trilogy. ``Broadway Bound,'' at the Broadhurst Theatre, concerns simultaneously Eugene and brother Stanley's breakthrough as professional comedy writers and the breakdown of their parents' 33-year marriage. In this alliterative profusion of B's, the B-major of comedy is counterpointed with the B-minor of darker emotions. ``Broadway Bound'' is Mr. Simon's richest and most penetrating retrospective. It also contains probably the tenderest scene America's contemporary master of comedy has ever written.

The Simon amalgam of laughter and melancholy recalls a line from the first instalment: ``If you didn't have a problem, you wouldn't live in this house.'' In the irreparable sense, problems have multiplied since 1937, the year in which Mr. Simon set the play that introduced his fractious Brooklyn family to the world.

``Broadway Bound'' occurs in the appropriately wintry month of February in the late 1940s. The focal point alternates between the professional strivings of Jerome and Stanley (Jonathan Silverman and Jason Alexander) and the ordeal of their mother, Kate Jerome. Funny as it most often is, the brothers' struggle to come up with sketch material adequate to the demands of CBS radio plunges the spectator into the agonies of fashioning the stuff of laughter.

Stanley is the outside man of the collaboration - the aggressive hustler who strikes up a conversation with Abe Burrows in an elevator, works every possible angle, and grabs the opportunity through which the Jerome boys make it into the big time. He is also the impatient and often bullying editor who berates poor Eugene when scripts bog down.

Mr. Alexander plays Stanley with a fierce and at times almost uncontainable fury that helps energize the dynamic performance staged by Gene Saks. Mr. Silverman is more laid back. His Eugene is still the narrator-commentator who moves in and out of the unfolding Brighton Beach drama for the wry comic observations that complement his humorous contributions to the formal dialogue of the play. Mr. Silverman has grown accustomed to the part through previous exposure and he plays Eugene with unstrained naturalness.

It is through the fragmenting relationship between Kate and Jack (Linda Lavin and Philip Sterling) that Mr. Simon evokes the underlying sadness that invests much of ``Broadway Bound.'' Typical of the suppressed affection that marks the intrafamily relations, Kate channels an intense maternalism into the domestic round that centers on meal preparation and housekeeping. Ms. Lavin marvelously conveys the conflicting emotions of a complex woman. When Kate waxes eloquent, it is over the dining table hand-crafted by her grandfather and inherited from her grandmother. Her outrage at the discovery of Jack's infidelity is followed by a stony withdrawal from the man she still loves. Mr. Sterling makes Jack understandable, if not particularly defendable.

Kate's memory of once having danced with George Raft at the Primrose Ballroom is cherished silently until Eugene coaxes it out of her in the play's most touching scene. Beginning reluctantly, Kate recreates a magic, unforgettable moment - a brief escape from the uneventful existence of a Jewish youngster growing up in a humdrum Brooklyn milieu. Mr. Simon has written it with exquisite delicacy and Ms. Lavin, gently assisted by Mr. Silverman, makes the most of these glowingly recollected moments.

The other key scene in ``Broadway Bound'' occurs on the night Eugene and Stanley's first comic script debuts on CBS. Family reactions range from a kind of bemused incomprehension to Jack's subsequently expressed resentment that his sons have held the family up to ridicule. He is not mollified by Eugene and Stanley's assurance that other families in the neighborhood thought that they were being parodied. In the case of ``Broadway Bound,'' the generation gap is also a gap in basic perceptions. Here, as in certain other respects, Mr. Simon's Brighton Beach finale is perhaps the most ethnic of his plays. The attitudes expressed by the Jerome family - from the hilarious first-act line about the Statue of Liberty to the sentiments that emerge as the play progresses - derive from Jewish familial roots.

The family itself is completed by Kate's father, Ben (John Randolph), an elderly Trotskyite of determined views, one of which is his refusal to accept his rich daughter Blanche's (Phyllis Newman) offer of comfortable retirement in Florida. Mr. Randolph and Ms. Newman make admirable contributions to the Simon family portrait.

For a bit of history, ``Broadway Bound'' recalls the radio era with a broadcast in which the voices heard are those of Marilyn Cooper, McIntyre Dixon, and the veteran Ed Herlihy. They add an authentic touch to a rich reminiscence. Equally important to the production are David Mitchell's cross-sectional setting, Tharon Musser's lighting, and Joseph G. Aulisi's costumes.

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