"There's so much material in this house maybe I don't have to become a writer," says a young man who wants more than anything to become a writer in Neil Simon's "Broadway Bound." "If I could just get people to pay for seats in the living room."
The speaker is clearly Simon himself, and, like "Brighton Beach Memoirs," his new play is set in the Brooklyn living room where he grew up. Here the characters are so sharply drawn that in their peculiar, even harsh way of not communicating, we see the roots of Simon's own hard-edged, often bitter comic style.
This is the third of Simon's autobiographical plays. "Brighton Beach" showed him in the pains of early adolescence. "Biloxi Blues" focused on the trauma of the Army. As "Broadway Bound" ends in the late '40s, we see him on the threshold of his career.
Just as the three plays consciously trace his youthful development, they represent an impressive maturing of his craft. In the earlier pieces his increasing willingness to be serious was offset by jokes about sex, suggesting Simon was afraid of the silence when the audience isn't laughing. Here Simon tells his story without compromising its uncomfortableness, showing an unexpected tenderness and compassion.
In the climactic scene, in which the young Simon recreates the happiest moment of his mother's life - when, as a young woman, she danced with George Raft - there is a lyric, joyous quality quite new in his work.
This moment owes much to the superb performances. Jonathan Silverman plays the young Simon with an infectious intensity and enthusiasm (and a greater air of innocence than his predecessor, Matthew Broderick). For the most part Linda Lavin, as the mother, seems to have all the martyrdoms of motherhood poised on her back like porcupine quills. But the radiance she displays in this scene gives everything else she does great poignance.
Jason Alexander has a marvelous bluster as Simon's ambitious brother, and John Randolph is wonderfully obtuse as the grandfather. In less affecting roles, Philip Sterling and Phyllis Newman do solid work.
Directed with Gene Saks' usual polish, "Broadway Bound" is expectedly funny and unexpectedly moving.
All art may be autobiographical, but some is clearly more so than most, and Neil Simon's "Brighton Beach" trilogy of plays, by his own admission "semi-autobiographical," has that special earmark of a reality recalled and translated.
All three are personal plays, echoing deep feelings and remembrances, but of the three perhaps "Broadway Bound," the final one which opened at the Broadhurst Theater last night, is the most personal of all.
The hero Eugene, whom we first met as a girl-obsessed, diary-thumping adolescent in "Brighton Beach Memoirs," and later saw his travails through World War II boot camp in "Biloxi Blues," is now out of the Army, back in the family house in Brighton Beach and on the verge of starting a career with his brother Stanley as a comedy writer at CBS for Phil Silvers' Sgt. Bilko.
Each of the three plays stands very well by itself, and indeed "Biloxi Blues," the weakest of the three, is almost set apart from the others as a conventional service comedy in the middle of two family dramas.
This new one, the deepest and most passionate of the lot, is in essence a sequel to "Brighton Beach Memoirs" - and the family has not only grown up, it has changed.
Both the earlier plays were about Eugene. "Broadway Bound" is about Eugene's mother Kate; how one night, in her youth, she briefly danced with George Raft, how she keeps her grandmother's table as a family symbol, and how she could not easily express love.
It is a portrait of a woman who lost much in life - her husband who went off with a younger woman, her children given over to success and her lifestyle which changed with history - yet somehow, so we are assured, she remained content.
As before, the narrator is Eugene who, on the drop of an idea, addresses the audience in Pirandellian style, this time giving us a neatly illustrated lecture on comedy and humor.
The play is, indeed, at its funniest when Eugene is explaining what makes for humor, particularly when he is using his grandfather, an unreformed Trotskyite who has lost hope of revolution, as an example of a man who never says anything funny, yet is rarely anything less than hilarious.
The story is slight - reality, like diamonds, tends to come in small packages - nothing more and nothing less than a family breaking up.
It is the characterizations that live: the curmudgeonly grandfather with a fading memory, the martyred mother dreaming of grandchildren, the Park Avenue aunt dripping in guilty nouveau-riche mink, the flustered husband hoping to make new stab at fulfillment at 53 and the two brothers, trying to find a new-wave comedy for their career surf-board.
People who still believe, against all evidence, that Neil Simon is some kind of mechanical laugh machine, wisecracking away with empty efficiency, will be disappointed more than usual. The snobs will find little to deplore, and the yahoos may find too few opportunities to guffaw.
For "Broadway Bound" is not a farce, is not really a comedy. It is more properly speaking a memory play, much more like "The Glass Menagerie" than "Barefoot in the Park."
Simon is trying to pin down on stage what it was like to be young and ambitious at this certain time in this certain place, and with this certain family. Call it a romanticized docudrama.
Its beauty is in its turn of phrases, little in themselves but perfect in context - saying, for example, that someone "could not dance a note," or putting forward the dilemma: "I love being a writer; it's just the writing that's hard" - and its turn of character.
Its faults are a willingness to be too cute - particularly with Eugene - and too ingratiating to the audience. The beauties are memorable, the faults forgivable.
The director Gene Saks, as before, must by now know the trilogy almost as well as if it happened to him. But then, it probably did; something like it certainly happened to me, and to many like me of that generation.
Nevertheless, the staging is admirable. David Mitchell's family house looks much the same as it did in "Brighton Beach Memoirs"; it has shifted over a little, we have a new auto ad, and the furniture, now including a push-button radio console, has been modestly updated. The costumes by Joseph G. Aulisi seem affectionately accurate.
And the performances are flawless. Jonathan Silverman (who by now has, at various stages, played all three Eugenes) perhaps seems a little too young for this ex-Army Eugene, but gets away with it. He is less center-stage than in the earlier plays, and Silverman makes him more of a character than a caricature.
Linda Lavin is a delight at the mother. When she dances with Eugene toward the end of the play, both she and Silverman (not to mention Simon and Saks) create one of those spine-pricking theatrical moments that gels in the audience's corporate consciousness and becomes a legendary memory.
John Randolph, looking as if he had personally inspired his own role, is perfect as the dampened firebrand of a grandfather, Jason Alexander charms with aging-boyish gusto as the brother, Philip Sterling, harried and guilty, brings a seedy honesty to the father, and Phyllis Newman is handsomely guilt-edged as the aunt.
It is a lovely, quiet, distinctive play that carries you with its eddies of memories and gusts of feelings into a world partly of its making and partly of your own. It has the look of a future classic to it - but that should not prevent it from being an immediate success.
Do see it. For some, it will be all your yesterdays. And for the rest, it will be yesterdays so well evoked that you will feel a nostalgia for a time you didn't know, and people you couldn't envision. That is the magic of poetic recall.
In an Act II monologue that's the indisputable peak of Neil Simon's ''Broadway Bound,'' a middle-aged Jewish mother named Kate Jerome tells her younger son, Eugene, about the most glamorous incident of her life - a night at the Primrose ballroom, 35 years earlier, when George Raft asked her to dance. Both as written by Mr. Simon and acted by Linda Lavin, Kate's reminiscence spirals upward like the opening clarinet glissando in Gershwin's ''Rhapsody in Blue.'' It's a mesmerizing journey to a bygone working-class Brooklyn where first-generation American Jews discovered the opportunities and guilt that came with the secular temptations of a brash new world.
Bernard Malamud couldn't have bettered the perfect pitch of this speech, yet young Eugene, the aspiring writer previously seen in Mr. Simon's ''Brighton Beach Memoirs'' and ''Biloxi Blues,'' is already imagining how his mother's past might be reshaped into a movie that will keep the audience ''at the edge of its seats.'' Kate doesn't seem to notice her son's editorial interjections, however, until Eugene announces that his movie will have ''a happy ending.'' It's then that Ms. Lavin suddenly stiffens her posture, as if throwing off the dreaminess of memory to reassume the weight of present-day reality, and closes the scene with an abrupt admonition: ''The movie isn't over yet.''
That moment crystallizes both the meaning of the play at the Broadhurst and the wonderment of following its author's recent career. ''Broadway Bound'' shows us its hero as he prepares to break into comedy writing on radio in the late 1940's, but not before he learns that life, unlike the movies, doesn't always come to a clear-cut, let alone happy, finale. Throughout the evening Eugene is tempted to draw neat conclusions about the troubled relatives in his fractious Brighton Beach household only to discover that their ''whole story'' is far more complicated, ambiguous and eternal than he ever imagined. And, of course, the story of Mr. Simon's development as a playwright isn't over yet, either. In ''Broadway Bound,'' Broadway's most successful practitioner of tidy dramaturgy continues to enhance the complexity that has brought him artistic rebirth in his cycle of alliteratively titled autobiographical plays.
The result, a transitional work, is messy, in both the positive and negative senses of the word. ''Broadway Bound'' contains some of its author's most accomplished writing to date -passages that dramatize the timeless, unresolvable bloodlettings of familial existence as well as the humorous conflicts one expects. But the seamless merging of laughter, character and emotion that ignited ''Biloxi Blues'' is only intermittently achieved here. There are stretches, especially in Act I, when ''Broadway Bound'' isn't funny or moving but just reportorial and expository, with plot twists and thematic invocations piling up undigested, like the heavier courses at an attenuated Passover seder. ''Every writer needs an editor,'' says Eugene, and one must wonder if a great play has been left unextracted from the rich but bulky material at hand.
What's most impressive about ''Broadway Bound'' is Mr. Simon's expanded generosity toward characters who are not himself. Eugene, a role that the talented Jonathan Silverman has now inherited from Matthew Broderick, is not the protagonist of this play. That position falls instead to Miss Lavin's Kate - a woman who must contend not only with the impending departure of Eugene and his brother, Stanley (Jason Alexander), but also with the probable desertion of her wandering husband of 33 years (Philip Sterling) and the growing frailty of her elderly live-in father (John Randolph). While Kate has lived for the single goal of raising a family, the post-World War II ''Broadway Bound'' finds her at a personal and historical moment when both her single-minded purpose and the Old World values that instilled that maternal mission are fast becoming obsolete.
Though Mr. Simon has either sentimentalized or caricatured his past heroines, he sees Kate whole, refusing to sanctify or mock her. Kate is a remarkable achievement - a Jewish mother who redefines the genre even as she gets the requisite laughs while fretting over her children's health or an unattended pot roast. She's a woman who takes ''her own quiet pleasure'' in a world that goes no farther than her subway line, and if her life is over once her dinner table is deserted, she greets her fate with stoical silence, not self-martyrdom. One only wishes that Ms. Lavin, whose touching performance is of the same high integrity as the writing, could stay in the role forever. It's all too easy to imagine the coarse interpretations that could follow this actress's meticulously, deeply etched portrait of a woman who is a survivor, not a victim, of an immigrant family's hard path to assimilation.
Almost as stirring, in both conception and performance, is the character of Kate's father, the unreconstructed, if sometimes hypocritical Trotskyite played with a matchless mixture of buried affection and shrewd comic timing by Mr. Randolph. This crotchety old man is a fresh take on the archetype the actor previously played in Arthur Miller's ''American Clock'' - no matter whether he's suffering the humiliations of age, or humorlessly applying socialist utilitarianism to his grandson's frivolous jokes, or confusing paternal anger for political ideals in an early joust with Kate's well-off sister Blanche (an empathic one-scene appearance by Phyllis Newman). Another product of tough circumstance, Mr. Randolph's grandfather, too, helps us see why Eugene pines so strongly for the luxury of intimacy that previous generations of Jeromes have been denied.
Oddly enough, Eugene's most intimate current companion, the older but more juvenile brother who is his mentor and writing partner, is less fully drawn. Stanley and Eugene aren't as hilariously fused as Mr. Simon's past male odd couples, nor do they achieve the Cain-and-Abel bonding of the equivalent brothers in Miller and Shepard plays. Perhaps to make up the difference, the usually witty Mr. Alexander starts Stanley off at a shrill pitch and stays there: the anger Stanley expresses in a fit of writer's pique is undifferentiated from the far more primal rage with which he confronts his father later on. Then again, the father, competently performed by Mr. Sterling, also fails to carry the dramatic weight attached to him: Mr. Simon seems to be expecting us to think back to ''Brighton Beach Memoirs'' to find a vestige of the principled, lovable patriarch that Kate and her sons keep claiming once existed within the spent, drab figure before us now.
The lengthier squabbles featuring the father or Stanley defy even the efforts of Ms. Lavin or of the impeccable director, Gene Saks, to animate them. Far livelier are the interludes in which Mr. Simon, with a nostalgic gusto reminiscent of Moss Hart's ''Act One,'' dissects the ambitions and craft of aspiring show-biz comedy writers. When Eugene and Stanley finally get their break on CBS, their silly, period radio sketch is interpreted or misinterpreted differently by everyone who hears it -leading to a masterly delineation of how even writing intended for a mass audience begins with specific details, and before that, in the unexplored subconscious.
Mr. Silverman presides over these interludes with appealing brio. It takes a while to forget Mr. Broderick's Eugene, but once one does, it's clear that his successor has captured both the ''nice, likable, funny'' shell of the young man and the ''angry, hostile'' writer-on-the-make within. By the time Eugene coaxes his mother to dance with him, in Oedipal emulation of that long-ago invitation from George Raft, we also see the compassion of a fledgling playwright who may someday come to terms with his childhood.
In ''Broadway Bound,'' Eugene's grown-up creator hasn't always come to those terms. One must endure those scenes in which the author, still bound by Broadway realism, settles for a smoothly crafted chronicle of his Brighton Beach memoirs, finite details instead of subconscious truth. But the compensating rewards are there when Mr. Simon, like mother and son in their imaginary ballroom, uncovers the family history that's never over, and, mature artist that he is, makes it spin.