When it comes to American theatrical comedy, you'd be hard pressed to name a figure who looms larger than Neil Simon.
In his lifetime, he got more Academy and Tony nominations than any other writer, with his plays and musicals racking up more than 9,000 performances between 1965 and 1980. From his early straight comedies like "Barefoot in the Park" and "The Odd Couple" through his later, sometimes more dramatic works like "Lost in Yonkers" and the Eugene trilogy, Simon kept cranking out the hits, at one point having four successful plays running simultaneously on Broadway.
While many of his plays deal with Jewish characters living in New York, Simon's Eugene trilogy is likely his most autobiographical. The trilogy follows the fictional Eugene Jerome's adolescence in Brooklyn with "Brighton Beach Memoirs," his training for World War II with "Biloxi Blues" and closes with the dissolution of his family unit in "Broadway Bound."
The last has recently taken form at Virginia Repertory Theatre's Hanover Tavern, incorporating some of the same cast members as its 2016 production of "Brighton Beach Memoirs." The year is 1949, and the Jerome family unit is starting to show cracks in its working-class foundation. Eugene (Tyler Stevens) and brother Stanley (C.J. Bergin) are worming their way into show business as comedy writers. Their parents, Kate (Jill Bari Steinberg) and Jack (Jeff Clevenger) are dealing with a growing emotional void, while Kate's socialist father Ben (Ken Moretti) is attempting to avoid the issues of his own marriage.
Reprising the role that won him a Richmond Theatre Critics Circle award for best newcomer (This reviewer is a member of the critics circle.), Stevens again mines his wise-ass protagonist for laughs, but provides a fittingly more mature characterization of the role. His brotherly scenes with Bergin provide much of the show's comedic lift, but the main conflict this time involves Kate and Jack.
As Kate's marriage falls apart and she learns her boys may soon leave to pursue their careers, Steinberg is a sturdy presence amidst all this change. She also gets the show's most heartwarming moment during a rare glimpse behind her stoic veneer: After much prodding by Eugene, the two re-create the time Kate danced in her youth with film actor George Raft.
In a rare dramatic turn, the often-hysterical Jeff Clevenger has tamped down his comedic impulses to give us a credible and world-weary Jack. And as the socialist grandfather who spits out incidentally funny lines, Moretti does good work as Ben, though he appears a bit young for the role.
Much of the proceedings are well managed by Steve Perigard's direction, but some of the dramatic scenes dragged on opening night. Terrie Powers' period four-room set remains a marvel for working on Hanover Tavern's stage, and R. Jonathan Shelley's lighting design helps offer context and show the passage of time.
Some may dismiss Simon for his love of one-liners and embrace of traditional values, but that perhaps discredits his more subtle efforts to examine our relationships to one another. More than two decades on, "Broadway Bound" remains an example of Simon's attempts to mine family dynamics for some greater understanding, and underlines the fact that life rarely comes to a tidy conclusion.
Virginia Repertory Theatre's "Broadway Bound" plays through April 28 at Hanover Tavern, 13181 Hanover Courthouse Road. For information, visit va-rep.org or call 282-2620.