Broadway Bound

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“Broadway Bound,” now at the Grand Theatre at Salt Lake Community College, is basically Neil Simon’s autobiography, at least in regards to his breaking into professional comedy writing.

It’s amusing to watch the character based on him, Eugene Jerome (Christopher P. Angelos), make jokes like, “It’s so cold, I saw a man kissing his wife, and they got stuck,” because that’s exactly the kind of “Hey-hey, folks!” joke that Simon’s plays are peppered with. Here, there’s an excuse for hoary old vaudeville shtick like that: We’re seeing how Neil Simon BECAME Neil Simon.

Eugene and his brother Stan (Jim Pitts) live in Brighton Beach, just outside of New York City, with their mother Kate (Jayne Luke), father Jack (David Phillips) and socialist grandfather Ben (Tony Larimer). The time is approximately 1950, when TV is new and radio is still king — but just barely.

Eugene and Stan want to be a comedy-writing team, and they get a shot at writing a sketch for TV, which could lead to their big break. Writers will get much fretful amusement out of watching these two try to overcome writer’s block and come up with something funny. (“I love being a writer,” says Stan. “It’s just the writing that’s hard.”)

Eugene, an energetic, zippy guy, acts as narrator, speaking directly to the audience and filling us in on the details. Despite the show’s central idea of two guys trying to be comedy writers, the play is actually rather sentimental, focusing much time on the strained relationship between Eugene and Stan’s parents, and on their mother’s former days as a dancer.

There is a very charming scene between Eugene and Kate as she recounts her one glorious night, years ago, of dancing with the famous George Raft. Jayne Luke, who is always a delight to watch, fills her role as the now-humorless mother with great soul, and Angelos as Eugene is not a step behind her. The scene is tender and funny.

“Tender and funny” may be the best way of describing the show as a whole. Don’t expect to rupture your spleen laughing; expect to chuckle and occasionally guffaw. Mostly, expect to be interested in the characters and charmed by the proceedings.

Stan points out that characters wanting something, combined with an obstacle preventing them from getting it, equals comedy. “Broadway Bound” shows that the comedy can often be bittersweet.

Isn't it kind of presumptuous to name your play "Broadway Bound"? That's like calling your movie "Oscar Winner."

In this review, I used the word "hoary" for about the millionth time. It's one of my favorite adjectives. It officially means "so old as to inspire veneration; ancient"; it can also be used to mean "gray or white with, or as if with, age." In common usage, I almost always see it applied to jokes and other forms of entertainment, and not in a flattering way. I first learned it in the song "Funny," from the fantastic musical "City of Angels" (which has nothing to do with the dreadful Nicolas Cage/Meg Ryan movie of that name; it's about a fiction-writer and his main character, a private detective in L.A. in the '40s). In the climax of the song, which is one of the most bitter, angry moments I've ever heard in musical theater, the writer sings with great irony about how the plot has twisted to the point where he is totally getting screwed over, and how it's actually kind of funny, if you think about it: "Sad enough, my life's a joke that suffers in the telling/Just another hoary chestnut from the bottom drawer/I've heard so often before/That I can't laugh anymore."

I have only seen "City of Angels" once, and it was the national touring company in 1992. I wish it would get performed regionally again, because it's a great show.

"Broadway Bound" was my 200th theater review for The Daily Herald. It took me about 20 months to do the first 100, but slightly less than 11 months to do the second 100 (which means I was seeing plays at a rate of about one every 3 days). What a fun job....

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