Wednesday, April 25, 2018
Stage

Review: 'Broadway Bound' is Neil Simon at his best, with powerful performances

TAMPA

Sometimes the most ambitious thing a writer can do is just to tell the truth about something.

This season, Stageworks Theatre has taken audiences to prison (Lights Rise on Grace), confronted them with the seemingly hopeless struggles of the disenfranchised (In the Blood), made them laugh (Sylvia) and invited them to reflect on timeless questions (Inherit the Wind). Promising new playwrights might get a shot here, and the voiceless are sure to be represented.

This is all well and good and right and proper. It is also true that a few — dare I say an "elite" few — have mastered the craft of playwriting on a level all their own. Neil Simon is one of those, and Stageworks has always reserved a special place for his work. Broadway Bound, which winds up its run this weekend, is the third and final of Simon's autobiographical "Eugene trilogy," tracing the playwright's roots and stint in the military through his emergence as a budding comedy writer. Stageworks did the first two, Brighton Beach Memoirs and Biloxi Blues, starting eight years ago.

You could say doing Simon is a safe bet, a budgetary lifeline to compensate for less popular productions, and maybe you'd be right. At the same time, there is nothing sinister about pleasing crowds with artistic excellence.

This production of Broadway Bound, directed by Karla Hartley and Paul Potenza, has cast the key roles fairly close to type, with strong actors pulling the heaviest loads. This is much more than a coming-of-age story for Eugene, although it is that, too. Like a street view on Google maps, Broadway Bound zooms into a middle-class Jewish home in Coney Island in the 1950s, just in time to see all of the characters change.

The set hits on multiple notes of nostalgia and comfort, from the vintage cathedral radio to 19th century family photos on the wall. Eugene (played for the third time in the trilogy by Ricky Cona) and his brother Stanley are trying to impress studio bosses at CBS with sketch comedies. In an era of Jack Benny and the Ed Sullivan Show, it's a competitive market, but also one saturated with boring, cornball stuff.

Stanley, the manager of the two, sees an opportunity and pushes Eugene to write copy. Cona plays Eugene with a steady hand, unwrapping the angst and insecurities and warmth of Simon's alter ego. With the more energetic (that's putting it mildly) performance of Spencer Meyers as Stanley, the brothers make a believable germ of a team, one decent break from their dream.

But this drama is about the whole house, not just a central character. The head of household is Jack, a garment worker whose philandering is about to be exposed. Paul E. Finocchiaro gives a fine performance, the kind you're grateful for.

The real leader of the home who has raised the kids and shaped its character is Kate, the wife and mother. Rosemary Orlando is simply stunning in the role, balancing a loaded serving tray of faded hope, an ingrained sense of duty and righteous anger like a career food server. The script and set (and some nice period tunes between scenes) create the opportunity for a very enjoyable theater experience. Supporting work by Heather Krueger as the daughter who married into wealth and Greg Thompson as the socialist grandfather who quotes Leon Trotsky ably round out the picture.

The performances of Finocchiaro and Orlando make the tension in that household real and bring it into the Stageworks' intimate space. In lesser hands, this would not nearly be the same show. A nice touch at Sunday's matinee (Mother's Day, appropriately enough), was the silver-haired audience. This crowd got the jokes about Franklin Delano Roosevelt, jokes about Coney Island, the ones I didn't get. It was a lot of fun watching the show, but it was especially fun watching it with them.

Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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