by Gail M. Burns
From his perch in 1986, Neil Simon looked back to 1947 and wrote a play about the future. All the characters in Broadway Bound, the final installment in his quasi-autobiographical trilogy of plays about the Jerome family, is teetering on the verge of the precipice of change. The young people, sons Eugene (Anthony J. Ingargiola) and Stanley (Robbie Rescigno), are reaching eagerly for their future, filled with the promise of romance, adventure, and success as comedy writers. Their father, Jack (Jason Asprey), is about to leave his wife and family, something their mother, Kate (Sarah Corey), knows and may or may not be ready for. And Kate’s father, Ben (Richard Howe), is clinging to his life in Brooklyn as his wife prepares to move to a retirement community in Florida.
It is a joy to see Ingargiola return to the Oldcastle stage after his thoroughly winning portrayal of Huck Finn in last season’s musical Big River. His Eugene is kind and caring. He has a believable brotherly bond with Rescigno’s much more aggressively ambitious Stanley, and a truly warm rapport with Corey as his mother. The scene late in the play where Kate recounts her teenage adventure of running off to the Paradise Ballroom (when she should be sitting shiva) in order to dance with movie star George Raft requires Ingargiola to listen with love and wonder as he gains a deeper understanding of Kate as more than just his mother. That is not an easy trick to do. And when they dance – Eugene says later that he couldn’t hold his mother close because the moment was just too intimate – there is magic on the stage.
Which brings us to the delicate subject of casting. Corey is a fine actress and she gives a wonderful performance, but she is too young to play Kate. There is a time to play a role like Kate, and you need to live a while to earn that right. It took me about half an hour to be able to put this problem out of my mind and accept her as the 50-something matriarch. That I did accept her and was able to move past the age issue is a tribute to her talent and commitment to this role, but there are so many fine actresses of the right age – Oldcastle regular Christine Decker springs instantly to mind – for whom meaty roles like this are hard to find, that I still question director Eric Peterson’s choice.
Asprey, however, is perfectly cast. His portrayal of the genuinely tortured Jack is haunting and powerful. There are no laughs in this role. Jack is a man who sees his future clearly, and he hates it, but he knows it is inevitable. He will leave. He must leave. And he knows that it will hurt Kate and Stanley and Eugene, and him. That hurt will shape all of their future paths in life. The second act scene between Jack and his sons is frightening and heart-breaking as Asprey takes all of Jack’s self-loathing out on his sons, ruining their moment of triumph and leaving them reeling.
The role of Ben offers a little bit of the comic relief that Simon provides so easily through his older characters – most notably in The Sunshine Boys – but Ben is not an aging cantankerous comic. He is a man who has worked hard and done his best by his wife, his daughters, and his grandchildren and has come to a point where he is scared of what comes next. Moving to Florida is one step closer to…what comes after retirement? What comes after your 70s? Maybe your 80s, maybe not. Howe gives a solid performance offering real insights into a character who could just be a geriatric punch line.
Rescigno provides the real comic energy in the play. Stanley is well past the age when he wants to be living at home with Mom and Pop. He knows he has talent and ambition, but Simon makes it clear that even while he can’t wait to get to his future, he finds the prospect of change as daunting as the rest of the family. Rescigno carries the frenetic scenes where Eugene and Stanley struggle to come up with their audition sketch for their big break in radio.
There is a sixth character, Kate’s sister, Ben’s other daughter, Blanche (Amy Gaither Hayes), whose second husband has surprised everyone by becoming quite rich and installing Blanche and her two daughters on Park Avenue. Blanche is the one who is ready and financially able to move her parents down to Florida, a climate that will be beneficial to her mother’s health, and Ben’s refusal to accept her “charity” and join his wife perplexes her.
Blanche and her daughters are key characters in Brighton Beach Memoirs, the first play in this trilogy, which is also set in Jack and Kate’s home, and I understand Simon’s interest in completing their story arcs, but unless you have a chance to see these two plays in close proximity, those aspects of her scene are awkward.
Set designer Carl Sprague has cleverly reworked his set for Oldcastle’s production of A Comedy of Tenors, which ran immediately before this production, and it works surprisingly well. There are well defined areas for the living room, the dining room, and Eugene and Stanley’s bedrooms upstairs. …Tenors is a six door farce which leaves the Jerome’s dealing with about two doors too many in their house, but Peterson, Sprague, and the actors make it work.
Ursula McCarty has crafted another fine set of costumes. Except for Blanche’s Park Avenue finery, the Jerome’s are not a stylish bunch, and her costumes clearly define the period and the socio-economic strata of the household.
Creating clearly audible sound that emanates from a radio and synchs with on stage dialogue is not easy and Cory Wheat’s sound design executes it well. My only problem with David V. Groupé’s lighting design was the jarring transitions when Eugene broke the fourth wall to act as narrator. Something much more subtle and less blinding would have been more effective.
I see a lot of plays – many of them very well written and many much more innovative in style and structure than Broadway Bound – but I have to say that it is a pleasure to attend the work of a playwright who just knows how to do it. Who knows how to create three-dimensional characters you care about, who knows how to structure scenes and advance plot, and who writes in clear, lucid language that flows. This is what is called a Well-Made Play, and with this fine cast it is just a joy to behold.
Broadway Bound by Neil Simon, directed by Eric Peterson, runs September 29 – October 15, 2017, at the Oldcastle Theatre Company, 331 Main Street in Bennington, VT. Set design by Carl Sprague; lighting design by David V. Groupé; sound design by Cory Wheat; and costume design by Ursula McCarty. Stage Manager Gary Allan Poe. CAST: Sarah Corey as Kate, Richard Howe as Ben, Anthony J. Ingargiola as Eugene, Robbie Rescigno as Stanley, and Jason Asprey as Jack. Radio voices provided by Gary Allan Poe, Timothy Foley, and Jody June Schade. The show runs two and a half hours with one intermission. For tickets and more information visit http://oldcastletheatre.org/ or call 802-447-0564.