A Neil Simon doubleheader
Brandon Uranowitz in “Broadway Bound,” one of a pair of plays at the Old Globe.
The Old Globe scores an engaging doubleheader with Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and “Broadway Bound,” triumphantly opening the 2010-11 season. Under the perceptive direction of Scott Schwartz, a proficient cast and a crack design team make these opening and closing chapters in the saga of Simon’s alter ego, Eugene Jerome, a rewarding repertory experience.
Extending Simon’s subtext by having the same actors portray the adults who inhabit both works, director Schwartz makes a persuasive case for “Brighton” and “Broadway” as conjoined familial memory plays. (The trilogy’s Tony-winning centerpiece “Biloxi Blues” follows Eugene through basic training as World War II ends, its own self-contained entity.)
Schwartz frames the approach with each play’s Eugene observing his past-future self as snow falls on scenic designer Ralph Funicello’s split-level homestead. This device plays effectively, as does Schwartz’s use of the aisles and author-approved tweaks to shore up links between the plays.
“Brighton Beach” is easily the funnier property, for all its flashes of gravitas. Set in 1937, the narrative deploys precocious Eugene (the marvelous Austyn Myers) as envoy to his financially stressed clan. They include not just his father, Jack (the superb David Bishins), his mother, Kate (a revelatory Karen Ziemba), and his older brother, Stanley (Sloan Grenz). There is also his mother’s tremulous widowed sister, Blanche Morton (Bonnie Black) and her daughters: nubile Nora (Allie Trimm) and cardiovascular-challenged Laurie (Julia Vanderwiel).
As Eugene shares his secret writing ambitions and burning pubescent urges with preternatural aplomb and many one-liners, his real-life proxy makes pert observations about sibling rivalry, parent-child relationships and internecine charity. Despite a spate of over-tidy Act 2 resolutions and some too-easy Jewishversus-gentile zingers, the current environment lends Simon’s plot turns a patina of relevance, from lost jobs and health crises to imperiled foreign kin and reckless enlistment.
“Brighton” embraces hilarity and family solidarity as counter to global uncertainty and economic duress. “Broadway Bound,” though not without its laughs, takes an opposite tack. It’s 1949, and grown Eugene (Brandon Uranowitz) and Stan (Joseph Parks), still at home but not for long, strive to become radio sketch writers. The Mortons have moved out and on, with well remarried Blanche now the charitable one. Add Ben Epstein (a spot-on Howard Green), Kate and Blanche’s undemonstrative Trotskyite father, now living at the Jerome home and separated from his wife.
Although Eugene and Stan using their relatives as sketch fodder has tickling aspects, “Broadway” is only marginally a comedy, only nominally the boys’ story (though Eugene remains our emcee). It’s really about the parents, all of them, and after Jack’s midlife crisis hits home with post-Odets force, “Broadway” hits its climax in what may be the best single scene Simon has ever written. As Kate shares with Eugene the high point of her youth — a ballroom dance with George Raft — the years and her stern facade drop before our eyes, magically.
Schwartz locates intent here that outstrips Simon’s rich but overwritten script, composer Michael Holland’s underscoring even more evocative than in “Brighton.” The designs throughout maintain the Globe’s high standards, Funicello’s detailed set a perfect frame for Alejo Vietti’s realistic costumes, Matthew McCarthy’s split-second lighting and Paul Peterson’s focused sound.
With all due credit to originator Matthew Broderick, the elfin Myers is the most convincing teen Eugene we’ve seen, stellar far beyond his years. He ideally matches up with Uranowitz’s saucy-sincere adult version, and though Grenz and Parks don’t equate quite so purely, they are both fine, fervent and funny. Black sometimes attacks Blanche’s beats more technically than naturally yet seems certain to only deepen as the run progresses. Green swipes every scene; Trimm and Vanderwiel are exactly right.
Above all, Bishin’s imploding gruffness and tenderness jerks tears and laughs at once, in total alignment with the always-wonderful Ziemba, whose inwardly motivated characterization is enormously affecting and true — a career-best turn. So sensitive a level of investment is typical of what makes this resourceful double bill such a satisfying achievement.
BROTHERS: Sloan Grenz plays Stanley, left, and Austyn Myers is Eugene in “Brighton Beach.”
Brandon Uranowitz plays Eugene in Neil Simon’s “Broadway Bound.”