Anne McEvoy as Blanch and Austin Pendleton as Ben in “Broadway Bound”

Anne McEvoy as Blanch and Austin Pendleton as Ben in “Broadway Bound” 

How renowned is Neil Simon? He has been showered with more Academy and Tony nominations than any other writer and is the only playwright to have four Broadway productions running simultaneously. In 1983, he became the only living playwright to have a Broadway theater named after him.

A large part of Simon’s legacy is his trilogy of highly nostalgic, quasi-autobiographical comedic accounts of his coming-of-age years in the Brighton Beach neighborhood of Brooklyn.

Following “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” where Simon’s alter ego Eugene is a pubescent baseball and comedy writing fan, and “Biloxi Blues,” where Eugene is sent off to boot camp and fine tunes his comedic sensibilities, is “Broadway Bound.” Called “expectedly funny and unexpectedly moving” by the New York Daily News, the play opened on Broadway in 1986 and was a 1987 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

It is on stage at the Beck Center for the Arts in Lakewood.

The play is set in 1949 and brings the young man back home to New York to flex his comedic writing chops and continue to endure his family’s dysfunction. In addition to Eugene, the play features his seething, suppressed mother, Kate, his physically and psychologically distanced father, Jack, his spark-plug older brother, Stanley, his communist grandfather, Ben, and his widowed aunt, Blanche.

Much of the humor comes from these people obsessively misconstruing one another’s speech as they seek to preserve their sense of individuality within the congested, hot-house atmosphere of an otherwise chilly household. There’s a laugh to be had in every provocation.

“Although we had done ‘Brighton Beach’,” said Scott Spence in a telephone interview from his office at the Beck Center, “that was prior to my arrival as artistic director (in 1992) and we have never done ‘Broadway Bound.’ Long, long overdue.”

Playing the role of Ben, the anarchist Grandfather, is Warren-born and New York City-based actor Austin Pendleton, who recently appeared in Beck’s production of “Glengarry Glen Ross.”

“It’s a role I had been wanting to take on for years,” he said in a phone interview between rehearsals. “The character is challenging and complex. He’s a comic figure, which is a pleasure to play given Neil Simon’s brilliant writing, but he also has some serious things to say. In fact, the comedy sets up the aspects of the play that are very moving.”

Pendleton is best known for originating the role of Motel in the 1964 Broadway production of “Fiddler on the Roof” and performing in Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children” with Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline in the 2006 New York Shakespeare Festival/Public Theater production. But his comedic timing is best on display in the film “My Cousin Vinny,” where he played a compulsively fumfering defense attorney.

“And he’s wonderful in this production,” director William Roudebush said. “He brings this kinetic energy that creates unpredictability, which is something I love in any production but particularly in something written by Simon.”

Joining Pendleton in the cast are fellow New York actors Susan Stein as Kate and Alan Safier as Jack, as well as local actors Zach Palumbo as Eugene, Daniel Telford as Stan, and Anne McEvoy as Blanche.

While Simon’s work is new to Beck, it is most certainly in the wheelhouse of Roudebush, who has helmed, acted in, or produced over 15 productions of his plays.

“And my father and I were devotees of the early TV shows that had Simon as a comedy writer, so his comic rhythms are in my soul,” Roudebush said. “I can’t wait for them to play out in front of a play-starved audience. This Beck production is the perfect ‘welcome back to the theater’ for all of us!”

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. He was named best in Ohio for reviews/criticism in the Press Club of Cleveland’s 2021 All Ohio Excellence in Journalism Awards.

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