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THEATER REVIEW : Fox Trot and Other Fine Moments : Group Repertory Theatre delivers a memorable dance scene, and the rest of the Neil Simon play, with credibility and warmth.

June 30, 1995|RAY LOYND | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Ray Loynd writes regularly about theater for The Times

NORTH HOLLYWOOD — The rapturous moment in Neil Simon's "Broadway Bound" that touches audiences to the bone--when Simon's young alter ego Eugene Jerome dances with his mother to a radio broadcast of "It Had to Be You"--is one of the most ineffable scenes in a Simon play.

Happily, director Dom Salinaro's staging at the Group Repertory Theatre makes the moment soar in a Simon revival that adds luster to the term "serio-comedy."

The third in an autobiographical trilogy (that began with "Brighton Beach Memoirs" and "Biloxi Blues"), "Broadway Bound" (1986) evocatively dramatizes the two Jerome brothers' turbulent home life and their entree into professional comedy writing just before they leave home in Brighton Beach to pursue careers in Gotham in 1949.

Autobiographically, the plot mirrors the anxiety of the playwright and his older brother, writer Danny Simon, shortly before Neil Simon joined the celebrated writing staff of Sid Caesar's hit TV show, "Your Show of Shows" (which served as the basis for Simon's "Laughter on the 23rd Floor," now at the Doolittle Theatre).

"Broadway Bound" is the first Simon play that GRT has done in its 22-year North Hollywood history, and in light of the play's dark tone and what is arguably Simon's finest play, the Group Repertory has struck a tuning fork.

The achievement ranges from the six-member ensemble acting to the period set design (by John Payton) right down to the physical details of the clattering commuter train and wintry frost evoked through the living-room window of the Brooklyn street outside the Jeromes' front door.

*

The infectiously engaging Brent Gettelfinger, playing the young Neil Simon with the untapped natural talent, and Stefan Lysenko, as the hustling older brother Danny Simon, capture the siblings' disparate temperaments.

The only quibble is that Gettelfinger's voice sounds as if he might hail from Santa Monica compared to Lysenko's more authentic New York street accent. But Gettelfinger's direct monologues to the audience and his inspired fox trot with his mom are pitch-perfect.

As the domestic anchor, forever serving food to family members or polishing the cherished heirloom of a dining-room table, Bethany Carpenter's mother, Kate, is a sharply centered portrait of a quietly anxious woman about to lose not only her growing sons, but also her unhappy garment cutter of a husband (the embattled, frowning Stan Mazin). In a wrenching confrontation with his wife, he finally admits to an adulterous affair.

*

"I didn't expect to get through a lifetime without your touching another woman," the mother stingingly responds, "but having feelings for her is something I can't forgive."

The bittersweet comic highlight is the evening the whole family (including the boys' amusingly quarrelsome grandfather Ben) gathers around the family's big floor-model radio to hear Eugene and Stan's first professional comedy sketch performed on a variety show.

Anyone who grew up with radio will feel right at home. But here the Jeromes' mixed reaction to material that is essentially too close to home is decidedly mixed.

As for the intermittent laugh meter, the key figure is resident Socialist grandfather Ben Epstein, a genuine character brought to immense life by Bert Kramer.

In an early scene that signals emotional troubles to come, actress Sheila Oaks nicely expresses ghosts past as the well-heeled aunt, Blanche, still trying to come to terms with her Trotskyite father, Ben.

The production warmly unfolds the play's varied colors. And Carpenter's delivery of the mother's memory of dancing with George Raft at the Brighton Beach Primrose Ballroom when she was 15 contributes a heightened ray of light.

WHERE AND WHEN

What: "Broadway Bound." Location: Group Repertory Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood. Hours: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. Runs indefinitely. Price: $15 general, $13 for seniors. Call: (818) 769-PLAY.

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