By Neil Simon
Directed by Eric Peterson
“Wisdom does not come from age. It comes from wisdom.”
Talk about irony. Neil Simon’s autobiographical comedy-drama about his early breakthrough into the world of comedy writing and his deeper feelings about his Brooklyn Jewish family – including his remorse, regrets and relationships with his parents – opened at Oldcastle Theatre in Bennington, Vermont, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. This descent into the depths of his past has always been a moving-though-light look at Simon’s own step out of the traditions of family, and it has always had an impact. However, on this special day with some very special performances, it moved into a separate realm, one of self-possession, self-criticism and an optimist’s view of another year in God’s book of life. The people in this production are so good at what they do, what they bring to the stage, that I honestly feel this feeling will stay with the production even with that special Jewish holiday in the past.
Much of the credit for this fine realization is due to the insight and delicate, intricate work done by the director, Eric Peterson. He has allowed his actors to move on other actors’ lines, reacting to what is happening, what is being said and left unsaid. This family unit is always contributing, always a part of one another’s moments. Peterson has allowed this group of people to constantly be visible, viable members of a close-knit community. It brings a perfect reality to the stage. We look, not at an actor, but at the broader tapestry of their existence.
As the brothers Stanley and Eugene Jerome, Robbie Rescigno and Anthony J. Ingargiola behave as siblings should. They have a physicality and an emotional engagement that shows their closeness even when they are in total disagreement with one another. Rescigno plays the young Lothario beautifully. He moves gracefully, plays light moments with a high emotional outpouring and behaves like a madman when inspired. Convinced he should never marry, Stanley pushes the aspects of single life that intrigue young men, and Rescigno makes the silliest of Simon’s lines speak volumes, especially in the light of the brothers’ knowledge of their father’s indiscretions.
Ingargiola brings a sweetness and concern to Eugene, the Neil Simon character, that gives others he plays with opportunities to make him seem backward. He takes the stage, whenever Simon gives him the spotlight, and plants reality in the midst of fantasy-memory time. His interplay with Sarah Corey as his mother has a charm that is endearing. He is, by the way, the only non-Equity member of the company and the play belongs to him most of the time. What he brings is a beautiful rendition of a role meant to create a star. He does remarkably well.
Two men managed to surprise me in this play. Richard Howe, who often blunders his way through a role, is absolute perfection in the part of Ben. Ben is the boys’ grandfather, come for a visit and occupying his room for 27 years. His politics are pure 1949 and his curious independence falls neatly into line with his other beliefs. Howe renders opinions with authority. He makes Ben’s foibles into the man’s finer points. We have a delicious performance here of the quirky-kind, just what Simon calls for in the part.
On the other hand, Jason Asprey–best known for work at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts–delivers a dark, brooding, romantic and ruminary performance that is absolutely first-rate. I have often found his work forced and unbelievable, but this role seems to be tailor-made for his best performance traits. He was moving in his long speech to his sons about their work. He was moving in his exit from the family home. He was moving in his indelicate argument with Kate, his wife. I was totally unprepared for work of this caliber, something I hope I will often see again in his future work.
I have noticed and commented on the work done at this theater by Shakespeare & Company actors I have not admired in the past. Something happens in this theater – perhaps it’s Eric Peterson – that brings out the restrained, held-back aspects of these talents. Asprey is not the only one to make me sit up and take notice and revise my thinking about the extent of these actors’ abilities. I hope to see more of this man’s talents in future shows anywhere.
Topping the rest is Sarah Corey as Mama Kate. She is so very honest and real in this role. Kate has often emerged as a phony but, in Corey’s hands, she is never more than a conciliator. This mother has to work to make her feelings show only a little bit. Corey’s struggle is pure vocal restraint and she is sometimes chilling, sometimes overwhelming while doing very little. We feel every ounce of pain in Corey’s performance. We mark time with her until the inevitable explosion of emotional reaction to the realities assaulting her. She transforms her Simon mother into an Arthur Miller mother, and then takes her on the journey home to Simon once again. She gives the play its emotional highlights as she tells and then shows the highlight of Kate’s life while she dances with her son, an unforgettable moment.
Carl Sprague has done wonders on a budget with the complex set for this play. Ursula McCarty has created costumes that are revoltingly real and perfect for these denizens of the “city across the river,” Brooklyn. The production on the whole is just what the play needs and the three radio voices of Gary Allan Poe, Timothy Foley and Jody June Schade deliver nicely. As a season-ender for Oldcastle, this is a winner production of an excellent play.
Broadway Bound plays at Oldcastle Theatre, 331 Main St., Bennington, Vermont, through Sunday, Oct. 15. For information and tickets, see the Berkshire Edge calendar, call the box office at (802) 447-0554 or go online to oldcastletheatre.org.