Playing thru August 14, 2010

CEDAR CITY — As a student and fan of Shakespeare’s four-century-old plays I occasionally reflect on which contemporary American works have a chance of drawing an audience in the year 2400. I have a short list of contenders in mind, and tonight I am tempted to add Neil Simon’s Broadway Bound to that list. It meets the requirements that classics are often judged by, namely: It touches both on humor and tragedy, its characters both act and react in human ways, and it focuses on universal themes of family and identity. If there are still Americans studying American history four hundred years from now, this play will serve as a lesson manual to the twentieth century.

As the play opens we find ourselves in the home of the Jerome family of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, and we are introduced one by one to the inhabitants. The grandfather, Ben (Bob Nelson), struggles to accept his aging body and to support his political and familial ideals. Kate (Carrie Morgan) and Jack (Richard Hill), a couple married for thirty-three years, quietly begin to sort out their individual identities now that their children are raised. And our narrator, Eugene (Jake Koeppl), who, along with his brother Stanly (Travis Cox), is entering manhood by embarking on a career as comedy writer and into a relationship with a woman he wants to marry. Each character comes packed with his or her own strengths and failings. Simon has created real people. They are your neighbors, or your own family.

The intimate seating for the play allowed me to watch from mere feet away as the actors argued with or embraced one another. I found myself laughing, crying, sympathizing with, and resenting each of them in turn. Each of these actors was exemplary in their role. Bob Nelson’s rasping voice, full beard, Yiddish accent, and deadpan humor allowed me to lose sight of my familiar former professor. The passion and intensity of Richard Hill and Travis Cox were spot on, especially in their riveting father-son showdown. And the sweetness of Carrie Morgan and Jake Koeppl’s mother-son moments was a delight, especially during a small stage mishap involving broken glass. Both actors used the accident to strengthen their character and their bond with each other. Some of Morgan’s lines were so fluidly delivered that I began to wonder if she was sticking to the script. It felt as though even she was surprised by the story she was telling. Each of the character relationships gave me cause to reflect on my personal life and dealings within my own family.

Sound and lights were entirely adequate throughout the production. I never struggled to hear, see or understand the action. Sets, props, costumes seemed to draw the short end of the stick giving the overall impression of having been pulled from the closets and cupboards of the actors and production staff. These designs seemed more convenient than artistic. For the most part the actors looked and felt very much at home on their stage. Particularly Morgan, whose constant setting and resetting of the table would have felt contrived if she hadn’t worked it so fluidly into her character.

Director Matt Neves is to be congratulated. Broadway Bound moves beyond entertainment and on to importance. The characters and the humanity of their desires overarch the 1940’s Brooklyn setting. Neves is clearly committed to the production and the story he is telling. As the third part of Neil Simon’s autobiographical trilogy of plays (following the heels of Brighton Beach Memoirs and Biloxi Blues), Broadway Bound is the cap of Neves’ three year directorial series with the Neil Simon Festival. Only time will tell if this play is a true classic, but for now I recommend this production to anyone who wants to participate in a truly human experience.

The Neil Simon Festival’s production of Broadway Bound plays at the Heritage Theater (105 N., 100 E.) in Cedar City.  Performances are Wednesdays and Saturdays at 7:30 PM and Fridays at 2 PM.  Tickets are $20-25 (with a 10% discount for buying tickets to all three of the festival’s productions) and can be purchased by calling 866-35-SIMON or by visiting the festival’s web page.