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Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Broadway Bound
Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's reviews of Love and Money, Big River and Othello


J. Kevin Tallent, Raymond Cusick, Rich Rose,
Kamy Renee Johnson, and David Michael Paul

Photo by Renee Ashlock
In Neil Simon's Broadway Bound, a character states "it's not funny if it's not believable" when describing his belief in what makes a comedy skit successful. Clearly that statement is also something Simon must have thought to himself many times during his prolific career, since most of his works are autobiographical in nature, based on his own life experiences. His "Eugene Trilogy" of plays, which includes Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, and Broadway Bound, are based, respectively, on Simon's younger years growing up in New York City, his time in the military and his initial success, with his brother, at writing comedy skits for radio.

Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre has presented all three of the plays in the trilogy in their past four seasons and their current production of Broadway Bound, while veering more toward the dramatic than the comical, features a talented cast, confident direction and skillful creative aspects that bring out the emotion in this bittersweet tale of growing up and learning to laugh through the tears and drama of family strife.

In Brighton Beach Memoirs, Simon introduced us to the Jerome family, who lives in the Brighton Beach neighborhood of Brooklyn. The first play follows teenager Eugene, the character modeled on Simon, in his search for identity and romance, set amongst his bickering parents, his older brother Stanley who feels trapped in his factory job, and his Aunt Blanche who has moved into their home with her two teenage daughters after the death of her husband. Set a few years later, Biloxi Blues centers on Eugene's time in the Army after being drafted at 18, and Broadway Bound wraps the story up five years later with Eugene and Stanley, now both in their 20s, and focuses on their drive to become comedy writers for radio and TV while their parent's relationship crumbles around them.

After years of success from such laugh out loud comedies as The Odd Couple and Barefoot in the Park, and romantic comedies that centered on his own adult relationships including Chapter Two, this trilogy of plays was somewhat of a departure for Simon. Not only were they a series of related works which also centered squarely on characters based on his family, but the three plays also veered more into drama than the situational comedies he was famous for. Broadway Bound also focuses more on the dramatic impact the parents' relationship issues have on Eugene and his brother and less on the zippy, one-liners and joke setups of the previous plays in the trilogy. I believe that because Simon was able to find a way to so successfully blend drama with comedy with these three plays, especially with Broadway Bound, it set him up to write what I believe is his finest play, and the one he won the Pulitzer Prize for, Lost in Yonkers, which Desert Stages also presented in a lovely production just two seasons ago, featuring the director of this production in a pivotal role.

Director KatiBelle Collins has assembled a fairly adept cast who are equipped to get across the dramatic moments in the play. However, they aren't all as gifted in ensuring the comic bits land, as a few jokes at the performance I attended were rushed or delivered too seriously to get the right impact, though many did get decent laughs. Fortunately, in the second act when the family is situated around a radio to hear the comedy sketch the boys have written, the jokes all land, both on stage and in the well-acted radio sketch. Collins' direction is unpretentious and clear and she also stages the action quite well, with good use of the small DST Actor's Café space with a set designed by Rick Sandifer and Collins that does a fairly good job in depicting the family living room, entryway, and the bedrooms of the two brothers. However, Eugene's loft bedroom is very tiny and somewhat intrusive when he is located there and action is happening below in the living room. Lindsay Ihrig's lighting works very well for the shifts in the scenes that depict Eugene's monologues and introspective thoughts he makes to the audience as well as in portraying the various times of day in the play. Mickey Courtney's costumes are excellent period designs.

As the two brothers who squabble and bicker as they attempt to write their comedy sketches, David Michael Paul is endearing and charming as Eugene, and Raymond Cusick is vibrant and animated as his older brother Stanley. Paul does very good with the narrative segments he addresses to the audience and beautifully portrays how Eugene desperately seeks his mother's love and his father's approval. Cusick is bright in showing the confidence Stanley has in their writing abilities and very funny in depicting how he is also nervous and agitated at the stress that comes with the possibility that they may not succeed. Cusick sometimes borders on being a bit too broad and over the top in his antics, though it is a nice counterpoint to Paul's more assured, easy and affable performance as Eugene. Even Paul's biting commentary about his family is appropriately laced with affection.

As their mother Kate, Kamy Renee Johnson is quiet and tender, projecting a firm exterior that she wants us to believe is as steady as a rock, yet through Johnson's clear, nuanced portrayal we see Kate's about to fall to pieces. Johnson and Paul have a sweet and tender moment in the second act that is beautifully acted and staged, as Kate talks about the time she once danced with George Raft and how that night in her past is possibly the only time she ever felt so beautiful and wanted. Kate also has a monologue about how sacred the dinner table is that is quite touching in Johnson's effective delivery. J. Kevin Tallent delivers one of the best performances I've seen him give as Jack, the father who has been cheating on his wife and who yearns for a change from his restrictive, repetitive life, appearing broken and bitter from his over 30 years working as a cutter in the garment industry. Eugene comments on how his parents aren't affectionate and his father no longer has feelings, and that comes through clear in both Tallent and Johnson's performances. Tallent's quiet demeanor and delivery in both the first act confrontation with Johnson and the second act scene where he tells his boys how he really feels about their comic skit are so realistically delivered and full of a quiet, seething rage that you feel like an intruder into the most intimate of family moments. Tallent is stunning in the part.

Rich Rose is believable as Ben, the quiet and stubborn grandfather who prefers political satire over the type of comics skits his grandsons are writing. Michele La Forest Richmond is a combination of nervousness and warmth as Kate's sister Blanche, a sweet woman who believes a family that loves each other should take care of each other. Wade Moran, Mark-Alan C. Clemente, and Ginger Muth provide fun contributions in the radio segment the brothers have written.

At one point in the play, Stanley comments that he believes good comedy has conflict and someone who wants something. In Broadway Bound, every character is faced with conflict and the desire for something, whether that is finding success writing for radio and TV or just having your family all together around the dinner table for a meal. It's a beautiful, bittersweet, simple and unpretentious play and Desert Stages' solid production is full of heartache, beauty, love, and complex emotions—just like life.

Broadway Bound, through June 9, 2019, at Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre at Fashion Square, 7014 East Camelback Road, Suite 0586, Scottsdale AZ. For tickets and information, call 480-483-1664 or visit desertstages.org.

Director: KatiBelle Collins
Costume Design: Mickey Courtney
Set Design: Rick Sandifer & KatiBelle Collins
Props: Elle Steward
Lighting & Sound Designer: Lindsay Ihrig
Stage Manager: Stephanie Santa Cruz

Cast:
Kate: Kamy Renee Johnson
Ben: Rich Rose
Eugene: David Michael Paul
Stan: Raymond Cusick
Blanche: Michele La Forest Richmond
Jack: J. Kevin Tallent
Radio Announcer: Wade Moran
Chubby Waters: Mark-Alan C. Clemente
Mrs. Pitkin: Ginger Muth


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