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Little Theatre Mounts Simon's 'Broadway Bound'

Production captures an affectionate family portrait.

The Little Theatre of Alexandria, the community theater company which mounted a professional theater quality production of Neil Simon's "Biloxi Blues" earlier this year, follows it up with a solid if not quite so well balanced version of the next show that Simon wrote, "Broadway Bound."

This was Simon's final look at the youth of his alter-ego, the character he named Eugene, but whom everyone knew was really Neil. It details the family at the time he and his brother get their first break as comedy writers and move out of the Brighton Beach home in which they grew up.

Unlike the first two, "Brighton Beach Memoirs" and "Biloxi Blues," Eugene's life story is the subplot here, with the collapse of his parents' marriage taking the position of prominence. Indeed, it is Jan Gaskins in the role of Eugene's mother who gets the principal spot in the curtain calls as the star of the show, not Matthew Argersinger who returns to play an older Eugene after his notable take on the role in the Little Theatre's "Biloxi Blues" of last April.

Gaskins is, indeed, very good in the role — especially in the second act's extended scene that almost amounts to a monologue as the mother shares her memories of the night when, in her youth, she stole out of the house to go to a dancehall where she had one dance with George Raft. That scene also gives Argersinger a chance to establish a nice chemistry with her and his reactions give her performance even more impact.

Argersinger also demonstrates some effective stage chemistry with both Dick Hollands in the role of the grandfather and Marcus Fisk, who is making a fine debut at the Little Theatre in the role of the father. There is also a sense of chemistry with the audience, which is very important for this play because Argersinger, in the role of young Eugene, acts as narrator as well.

Where there is a lack of chemistry is the relationship between Eugene and his older brother, played by Brian Razzino, who is a bit harsh in his portrayal and whose voice tends to disappear in the scenes that take place in a second-story bedroom at the back of the set. This, and a disappointing performance by Eleni Aldridge in the smaller role of an aunt, keep the play from working quite as well as it could.

AS WE HAVE COME to expect from Simon, the play details strengths, weaknesses and peculiarities in all the characters with a fine eye for telling detail and a nonjudgmental sense of affection. Major weaknesses of each member of the family are laid bare for public examination, and yet it seems neither a violation of their privacy nor a public indictment. Instead, it seems a loving, if occasionally confused, tribute to the humanity of each family member.

This is all the more impressive since the play details the kind of problems most families take great pains to keep behind closed curtains. There is even a fine scene where the father takes his children to task for the violation of the family's privacy by writing thinly disguised comedy scripts about them. Talk about things coming around full circle.

There is humor in this script. It is, after all, a Neil Simon script. He's the man who gave us "The Odd Couple" "The Goodbye Girl" and "The Sunshine Boys" not to mention musicals such as "Sweet Charity" and "Little Me." But here the one-liners are the seasoning for the dish, not the main course.

Howard Vincent Kurtz directed both the earlier "Biloxi Blues" and this latest production. He paces this new one a bit slower, but that is appropriate because the play is more sentimental and worrisome than the earlier story of Eugene as a soldier. Set designer John Downing and costume, makeup and hair designer Karin Craven recreate the feel of the world of Simon's youth. The show offers a number of notable moments and adds up to a very enjoyable evening of theater.

Brad Hathaway has covered theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway and edits Potomac Stages, a Web site covering theater in the region (www.PotomacStages.com). He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.