Comedy, dramedy, dream9/16/2015
As you bask in Repertory Theater of Iowa’s luminous production of “Broadway Bound,” by Neil Simon, at times nothing on stage shines so brightly as Kerry Skram. Always a local standout, here she plays Kate Jerome, mother to Stan and Eugene. The boys hope to write funny stuff for this dubious new medium called “television,” and when they succeed it allows them to escape Brighton Beach, thus providing the plot for this shambling Neil Simon “dramedy.” Mama, unlike her boys, never gets anywhere, but she breaks your heart.
Or Skram does. Just repeating “uh-huh” over the phone, she’s Brooklyn. She shows who’s boss even as she quits the stage, tossing a zinger over one shoulder, and she dances away with the climax. While she takes Eugene back to her days at the Primrose Ballroom, every step conveys her stay-at-home stresses and joys.
Eugene is a stand-in for the playwright. Simon worked up a trio of such autobiographical pieces, ending with this one in 1986, and these transformed him from the jokester of “The Odd Couple” to a Pulitzer winner. The plays drew on the New York of his youth, all ethnic enclaves, comforting but suffocating. This proved fertile ground for comedy and other tensions, too.
At the Kum & Go, Jay Jaglim’s set reflects this ambivalence. The old sofa, front and center, feels warm yet burdensome. You get the same effect from the buttons and layers of Kelly Schaeffer’s costumes (those sweater-vests!). Also, up on the second story, Jaglim put in a hallway that director Brad Dell uses as a spider web. He catches Stan in one doorway while Eugene is hung up in the next room.
As the boys untangle themselves, they get off plenty of jokes. The drama depends more on the author-figure, however, so Stan is more the comedian. In this role, Benjamin Sheridan pumps up a terrific physicality. When the brothers’ first radio skit is about to air, the only way he can contain himself is with his fists in his pockets and his mouth in a square. Sheridan brings the same energy to his most serious moment, coming at his father in a thug’s lean.
The father embodies the play’s tragedy. He, too, can’t abide the Old World constraints of Brighton Beach, but he lacks his sons’ opportunity to break out. Stan can chortle and bounce, but his dad has to grumble and lurch. The upshot, for Shawn Wilson as the father, is a performance of remarkable subtlety. The menace he brought to a play like “True West” two years ago comes across here as beaten down to unhappy dreams. As Kate berates Jack into admitting he wants to leave her — and worse — it appears the two switch genders, the wife muscling up, and the husband wilting. In his own soft way, Wilson matches Skram’s stellar performance. As the hustlers in Brooklyn say: “Ya get two fa da price a one.”
Overheard In the Lobby: This month, Winterset Stage has the interactive mystery, “Marriage Can Be Murder.” CV
John Domini is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.