On a mission to champion its writer, actor Jason Alexander returns to the Neil Simon play he starred in nearly 28 years ago — this time in the director’s chair
By Michael Aushenker
He’s been there before, but never quite like this.
Actor Jason Alexander, who from December 1986 to September 1988 played older brother Stanley in the original Gene Saks production of “Broadway Bound” on Broadway, returns to the beloved Neil Simon play on Saturday at the Odyssey Theatre in West Los Angeles.
However, this time, he’s not starring in it, he’s directing it.
Forever known for his role as Jerry Seinfeld’s petty and hapless sidekick George Costanza for nine seasons on “Seinfeld,” Alexander has a lengthy history with theater that precedes his television work. In fact, outside of the classic NBC sitcom (1989-98), voicing the titular character of the animated series “Duckman” and gargoyle Hugo in Disney’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” and a handful of TV and movie parts (including one in Julia Roberts’ career-launching Gary Marshall feature, “Pretty Woman”), the bulk of Alexander’s work has been on the stage, appearing in Stephen Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along,” “The Rink” and “Accomplice” on Broadway and opposite Martin Short in an L.A. stage adaptation of Mel Brooks’ Oscar-winning feature comedy “The Producers.” Alexander won a Tony Award for his work in “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway” in 1989.
So why come back to Simon’s “Broadway Bound”?
“It’s a play that I love dearly. I actually think it’s his strongest comedy,” Alexander said, a split second later correcting himself to label it a “dramedy.”
What sparked his involvement was catching a production of “Broadway Bound” starring a longtime family friend, Gina Hecht, in late 2013 at the La Mirada Theatre of the Performing Arts.
“It was a really admirable production, especially when you consider that La Mirada puts up its productions in two weeks,” he said.
Hecht (who in 2011 co-starred with Alexander in a production of Simon’s “The Prisoner of Second Avenue” at North Hollywood’s El Portal Theatre) and various cast members expressed their curiosity about Alexander’s involvement with the original production.
“They knew I had done it in New York,” he said. “They asked me about my experience in the play and it was kind of inspiring to them.”
After the La Mirada run, Hecht and her fellow actors gambled that if they could create it at another theater, perhaps Alexander would direct.
“I said, ‘Yeah, it actually sounds like fun,’” Alexander said.
“Broadway Bound” loosely autobiographically chronicles Neil Simon and brother Dan Simon as the Jerome brothers, Eugene and Stanley, who aim to break into show business as professional comedy writers. Ian Alda reprises his La Mirada role as younger brother Eugene while Noah James plays Alexander’s Broadway role as the elder Stanley. The La Mirada production’s Hecht returns in this cast, as does Allan Miller.
Beyond his connection to Hecht, Alexander told The Argonaut that there was a grander reason why he felt compelled to direct “Broadway Bound.” He believes that, in recent years, Simon’s reputation as a playwright has taken some knocks — never mind the fact that the original production Alexander appeared in became a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in drama and garnered a Tony nomination for Best New Play.
“It’s the most complex, most personal play that he wrote,” Alexander said.
Back when Alexander was an actor in “Broadway Bound,” Simon did not provide too many insights about the subtext of his quasi-autobiographical play or “the real dynamics between him and his brother,” he recalled.
“We never talked about what it meant. I know it was a very emotional experience for him. It was overwhelming at the time. He was questioning whether it was a disservice to his parents,” Alexander said.
At the Odyssey, Alexander has enjoyed more than a scant 14 days to assemble this production. Starting informally in late June and applying equity waver rules to rehearsal time, he gathers they’ve had “somewhere close to four weeks [preparation],” he said.
“It’s been fascinating to delve into this play,” Alexander continued. “We’ve discovered some things that perhaps were little hidden treasures. The one unanswered question this play, more than any other [of Simon’s plays], has an interesting dividing line: What is a comedy, what is not a comedy? …
“The scenes can get quite intense,” he continued, likening moments of “Broadway Bound” to an Arthur Miller or a Clifford Odets piece. “It’s a gracefully darker, deeper play, and we won’t know how it plays until we get it in front of people.”
As an actor, Alexander has dealt with tonal shifts before — famously, that divisive last episode of “Seinfeld,” a one-hour installment for which the situation comedy’s creator Larry David returned. David’s ultra-symbolic series finale, which culminated with an apparent damning of all four central characters to a prison of their own self-absorption, as the conclusion to an otherwise wry, witty, satirical “show about nothing” invited an uneven reception.
Alexander said he was too emotionally entangled with the series ending to take stock of the finale’s content.
“There’s also a huge difference when you’re inside a piece than when you’re involved directorially,” Alexander said. “For me, it was extremely rewarding because Larry had found a way organically to bring back everyone who had been a part of the show. So, sentimentally, I was so thrilled with that experience.”
Yes, most Simon plays have been revived relentlessly on Broadway and in community theater, but Alexander does not feel compelled to put a radical spin on “Broadway Bound.”
“There are many plays where the best direction you can provide is invisible,” he said. “The real work on a play like this is helping the actors realize the moment. All the characters in this play are in intense circumstances in their lives.”
Besides, by virtue of “Broadway” being bound for this West Los Angeles venue, the Odyssey production will stand apart from previous versions.
“It was never meant to be done in an intimate space,” Alexander said. “When you walk into that theater, you’re walking into that home. You’re not looking at the play, you’re inside it.
“This house — this set — dictates so much what’s going on. Real things are going on. There is a razor-thin separation between audience and actors. We’re trying to put you inside the house.”
While Alexander does recall his director’s approach to the play when he was acting in it, he does not feel emulating Saks is necessary or even analogous.
“Gene had different challenges,” he said. “It was a new play. A lot of what he was doing was dramaturgy — fixing it through the writing of the play — than the directing of the play.”
As for his own experience, Alexander considers himself lucky to have directed some TV and movies.
“However, on any given day, I know the world of a stage. For better or worse, it’s you and me. With TV and film, there’s a lot of people coming in between you and me. Sometimes those changes make me look better, but it’s not what I did,” he said. “I went into this business to have a live communication with an audience. This idea of pure communication between audience and artist only happens in the theater.”
At the Odyssey, where Alexander believes the audience will skew 50 or older, the actor-director believes attendees “may recognize a piece of their lives in this. This play highlights a generation.
I love watching audiences go back in time. It’s a magical thing for them to do.”
Moreover, Alexander sees this Westside production as a chance to champion its playwright.
“I am waving the Neil Simon banner,” he said. “I’m saying, ‘Don’t write him off. He was a supremely talented human being.’”
While some Simon comedies may appear dated, “With this particular play, I think Neil has transcended that. As a comedy and a drama, it shows him for who he really is,” Alexander said.
“So, hey, let’s wave the Neil Simon flag a bit!”
“Broadway Bound” premieres at 8 p.m. Saturday and runs through Sept. 21 at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles. Tickets are $30. Performances continue at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Thursdays with some exceptions and additional weeknight performances, including pay-what-you-can nights ($10 minimum) on Aug. 14 and Sept. 10. Call (310) 477-2055 or visit odysseytheatre.com.