Thursday, November 20, 2014

Simon Says

A pair of reviews of two Neil Simon plays, performed at North Coast Rep in 2006 and 2007.  It turns out it is too difficult to assign them to their actual dates in this site's chronology, but at least now they will be here, and are searchable through the labels.

Broadway Bound (2006)

Broadway Bound is about two brothers trying to break into TV as sketch comedy writers. It’s set in 1949, just a year or so before Neil Simon began writing for Sid Caesar along with his brother, Garfunkel, (or if you prefer his real name, Danny).

 By the 1980s, playwright Neil Simon was integrating the comedy that brought him Broadway success with the character drama he admired in Chekhov and Tennessee Williams. Eugene, his young alter ego in this play, is just discovering that his repressed anger in response to family tensions is a source of his comedy.  As this play’s author, Simon goes beyond unconscious reaction to careful and eloquent examination of the individuals in the family, as they prepare to go their separate ways.

 This is the third (and, according to Simon, the most autobiographical) of the “Eugene” trilogy that began with Brighton Beach Memoirs and continued at Army boot camp towards the end of World War II in Biloxi Blues.

 Eugene and his brother are working on a sketch for CBS, hoping it will be the ticket to their own apartment in Manhattan. Their socialist grandfather, is resisting the pleas of their Aunt Blanche to join his wife in a move to Florida. Their parents are coming to the end of their marriage.

 On the writing team, Eugene is the funny one and his brother Stan is in charge of structure. Stan says that even a comedy sketch requires conflict, which begins when somebody wants something. In this play, each character becomes very clear on what they want, and their thoughts about that and about each other become the play’s structure.

 Though that shape is lopsided for a well-made play, the individual scenes and provocative moments are likely to stay in your head for a long time, rearranging themselves in new webs of meaning.

 Henry Kraemer is engaging as Eugene in the current NCRT production, making the all-important connection with the audience as the play’s eyes and ears. Eugene is still pretty callow for a 24- year old Army veteran, but Kraemer’s ease wins the audience’s confidence while his energy propels Gene Cole’s fast-paced direction.

 With his measured deadpan delivery, Ellsworth Pence is the perfect counterpoint as the grandfather, especially at the start. The second act belongs to Gloria Montgomery as Kate, Eugene’s mother, and not only for the central scene of the play—the justifiably famous recounting of the night she danced with future movie star George Raft. Montgomery creates a memorable and individual Kate with great economy, honesty and emotional power.

 Jerry Nusbaum, Dmitry Tokarsky and Adina Lawson bring lucidity and feeling to their roles and especially their most vital moments. I felt the production lacked enough variation in the rhythm to separate moods and highlight particular moments, but the most important function is presenting the moments with clarity, and it accomplishes this with conviction. It’s a thought- provoking and moving experience, and funny, too.

Jake's Women (2007)

There's a particular interest in a writer seeing a play about a writer who is too much the observer and not enough the participant in his own life, especially when one is among those reviewers who began as a participant in theatre - as a playwright, actor, director and even a song composer, and whose role now is as journalist and judge.

Well, when you get a role, play it.

 In Neil Simon's play Jake's Women, a writer in his 50s imagines scenes with the women in his life as the fate of his marriage in crisis is decided. The current production at the North Coast Rep features fine performances.

 On opening night, a slow start with shaky (presumably New York) accents got a burst of energy and definition from Suza Lambert Bowser as the psychiatrist with the heart of a chorus girl. Young Derby McLaughlin, who played Jake's daughter Molly at 12 years old, provided not only another hit of vitality but of reality: She was winsome and wonderful, inhabiting her part completely. Christen Condry Whisenhunt also created a credible and funny character (Sheila, Jake's current girlfriend during his separation) with economy and comic grace. Theresa Ireland as Molly at 21, Shelley Stewart as Jake's sister, Karen, and Jolene Hayes as Maggie, Jake's wife at the start of the play, all had their shining moments.

 Kim Hodel had the plum part of Julie, Jake's perfect first wife, who he fell in love with when she was 21 and he was 24, and who died at 35. She played it with the moral beauty and physical radiance that forces us to wonder where the line is between Jake idealizing his dead wife and remembering her accurately - was she really this wonderful? Hodel is convincing as both fantasy and tragically lost reality, in a memorable performance.

Michael Thomas as Jake had the longest and most difficult role, as he was required to hold the stage and hold the play together for the entire evening. Some of the most taxing scenes come late in the second act, when Jake's frenzy accelerates and then must be transformed into the resolution of acceptance and vulnerability. He did yeoman's work, keeping the audience involved, and laughing.

 After 30 years and almost that many plays, Neil Simon knew how to generate laughter and tug at the heartstrings by the time this play was first produced in 1992. There are lots of laughs, some provocative remarks, and scenes that play like crazy. A dead wife gets to meet her daughter at 12 and 21 - how can you fail with a scene like that? (In this production, it doesn't fail.)

 Simon's laudable efforts to go beyond his usual stage presentation with imaginary encounters often succeed individually -- he plays with how much control Jake actually has over what he imagines, and over the characters in his fantasies.

 But even given all these audience-pleasing and thought-provoking elements, this play doesn't quite hold together. I hadn't seen it before, either on stage or what I suspect is the more successful television version (which Simon rewrote completely), so I strongly suspect its weaknesses are in the writing rather than James Read's efficient direction, the fine performances he nurtured or any other element of this production.

Beyond even the sometimes mawkish lines, the unlikely and too-perfect anecdotes explaining Jake's too-pat problems, and the strained clichés that go by in the last moments like stray bullets, the play as a whole totters on our not really knowing who Jake is. Jake's life beyond his fantasies has no reality, and neither does he.

This is also important because the central tension comes from Jake being unable to stop fantasizing his life (which gives him control) long enough to trust it and live it. Certainly there are some rueful truths about writers in this play. I've been known to complain that the problem with life is that you can't revise. But Jake's fantasies aren't demonstrably related to his work, which neither he nor anyone else talks about or seems to care about, but to some generic and one-dimensional image of The Writer.

 There are credible moments, as in his second-act frenzy of rapid-fire fantasies of vacations spots and new homes, like a writer brainstorming plots. But the writer thing becomes a weak conceit, and a very wobbly basis for a play.

 Thomas and especially Hayes (in the second most difficult role) are very good in the final scenes, when the script has other significant problems. Though I found the play unconvincing, the North Coast Rep production is certainly worth seeing for wit, emotionally indelible scenes and the array of satisfying performances.

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