Broadway Bound was the first play I ever saw on Broadway, during the brutally cold Presidents’ Day weekend of 1987. In short, I loved it, although I’m sure it was mostly for the experience as I didn’t really understand much about the show, or its context. Still, I was aware that it was well-written and professionally acted, and I even pled with my folks to wait outside the stage door for Linda Lavin, who played the mother, so I could finally see Alice up close and personal. In retrospect, it was a fitting commencement for my theatergoing career – a fine play from a brilliant playwright, a man who I still hold kn high enough esteem to be writing about him 29 years later.
This version is a TV movie adaptation which aired on ABC in 1992. After the Marrying Man debacle, no film studio would touch Neil Simon with a ten-foot pole, so sadly the final chapter of his Eugene trilogy would be consigned to the boob tube. It wasn’t so bad, actually; unconstrained by the Hollywood requirements of big stars they actually got a talented, theatrically-trained cast to star in it, and the work retains and subtle, theatrical quality it might not have managed on the glitzy big screen. On a whole, the casting is marvelous (with one big exception, which I’ll get to later) and the script spare and strong; ultimately the coda to Simon’s tertiary autobiography is unexpectedly moving and rewarding.
It is now 1948, three years after the war, and Stanley and Eugene are still living with their parents, Jack and Kate, and her aged dad, Ben. The boys are aspiring writers, and they get the chance to do a script for a comedy radio show, mostly due to Stanley’s prodding. He’s the wheeler-dealer of the duo, but his frustrations over Eugene’s doubts and insecurities become more and more evident. Things are worse with mom – she correctly suspects that Jack is having an affair – and her confrontation with him over it leads to a weepy confession that a dalliance had been going on for over a year, and only recently gotten serious.
Grandad understands marital discord all too well: his wife of decades hasn’t lived with him for quite some time, and he’s in no hurry to leave his beloved NY home to live with her in Florida. Even Aunt Blanche, now a wealthy woman after having married a millionaire, can’t persuade him, and Kate is even more resentful of her now with her newfound riches. Stanley and Eugene finally get to hear this show on the radio, but it’s obvious the fiction comes from their nonfiction family life, and it ruffles Jack’s feathers, who’s already insecure from his infidelity. Ultimately, the boys land a deal to write for television, and decide to move to the Big Apple. Jack moves too, under far more unfortunate circumstances, and Eugene marks the moment as a turning point in his life.
One thing that really stands out for me in this work is the tone: meditative, ruminatative, and as quietly sober as the snow falling outside for the duration of the story. Like a good Bergman film, there are a lot of secrets, and regrets here – the characters here
rarely emote so much as
they implode. Kate, for example, is not surprised by her husband’s affair; it
had been going on for so long. All she can do is remember, and her scene with
Eugene remembering dancing with George Raft is one of Simon's best-written
moments ever. Hume Cronyn is fantastic as Eugene’s socialist, Trotsky-loving,
somewhat senile granddad, a man who provides the work with much needed
spontaneity and innocence. And Jerry Orbach is nothing bud sad as the
tragically wounded father. A man spending his life trying to do right, but
failing at nearly every level. Simon has put adultery on the stage and screen
for thirty years at this point, but this is probably his most pathetic,
head-shaking depiction. You sure couldn’t get farther from the sunny,
optimistic tone of Brighton Beach Memoirs if
|TV ad from 1992|
But the biggest flaw for me in this movie is the casting of Johnathan Silverman as older brother Stanley, not Simon alter-ego Eugene, despite the fact that he played this role in the Broadway version as well as the film version of Brighton Beach. Why the switch? I have no idea; it’s not only confusing but also plain unconvincing. Silverman had a Matthew Brodeick-esque quality about him that served him well in this wisecracking role. As the more authoritarian Stanley he’s all wrong. It’s just too bad they couldn’t have had the same guy play Eugene in al three films – they at least had the chance here to get two out of three, and they blew it.
But it’s not enough to sink the film. On the contrary there are some truly lump-in-the-throat inducing moments, as when Eugene hates the writer side of him, calling it a monster, to which his brother replies, “Better get used to him; that moster will be paying your bills!” And then there’s the final goodbye, as the brothers move out, and the family bids farwell. Kate, the unemotional, acetic matriarch is clearly saddened, but stoically says little. And Eugene remembers her this, as well as the heartache her husband’s betrayal has caused her. He leaves behind a wounded family – but it’s his family. The only way to cope is to write, and that’s exactly what he does.
A fine coda to a wonderful trilogy. Goodbye, Eugene. You came a long way.
Stage in Simon’s…. obvious.