Helen Hayes Award-winning actor Andy Brownstein has been absent from the DC stages since his 2012 performance as Michael in the pitch-black comedy God of Carnage at Signature Theatre. However, this week he makes his return in 1st Stage’s production of Neil Simon’s Broadway Bound, a fragile, tender comedy dealing with divorce, pain, family tension and humor.
In the play, Eugene Jerome (Neil Simon’s autobiographical stand-in) and his brother Stanley take their first steps into a new career as comedy writers. But this exciting new beginning comes with much tension, as it coincides with an ending- their parents’ impending divorce.
As Brownstein puts it, “It’s a screamingly funny play, but much of the comedy comes from an uncomfortable and at times desperate place.” It’s a style of humor that might resonate well with the current emotional climate of the city.
Brownstein says his return to the stage for this role is partly a matter of finally having the capacity to fit theatre in against his career as a journalist (a familiar challenge for many DC performers). But, he was also driven back by the connection he felt to the role of Jack.
“Like many parents at middle age [Jack] wonders what his life will consist of once his old role is finished. He has lost his way, lost his compass and makes some tough choices.” Brownstein said. “That character journey interested me a lot.”
But portraying Jack has its challenges. “You hear a lot about him in the past tense as the person he used to be. He used to be a man of principle, he used to be a person you can look up to, he used to be a person you can depend on. . . It’s a challenge to let the audience not only see the person at the breaking point, but also the person they might have been just a couple of years before the play started.”
But Brownstein is no stranger to challenge. To him, “If there’s not a challenge, there’s no point in doing it.” When he was young, he was diagnosed with a case of dyslexia so severe that his teachers predicted he’d never be able to read or write.
“It’s probably no coincidence that I became a writer. As I got older, I gravitated towards other forms of storytelling. I have a friend who likes to say that at the end of life whoever has the most stories, wins. I like that idea. I like what Joan Didion said–that we tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
That’s part of what led him to become an actor- it’s just another form of storytelling, albeit one that pushes him even further outside his comfort zone than writing does. “I love the theatre. I love the company of other actors. I love sinking my teeth into a text. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say it scared the shit out of me sometimes. I always feel like theater is gonna somehow end as Frankenstein does, with the villagers chasing the hapless monster through the street with pitchforks and torches.”
closes December 18, 2016
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Now Brownstein is in his forties. He’s becoming settled and established enough in his writing career to be able to more easily balance both in his life, but the stability that comes with age is a bittersweet thing. “You hit forty, and suddenly certain Bruce Springsteen songs start taking on new resonance. You realize that the road you had in front of you when you were twenty was not as limitless as you thought it was. You begin to wonder whether you have the time to do all the things you wanted to and it forces you to make choices, sometimes make some desperate decisions, and not all of them are the right ones.”
And that is, essentially, the same thing his character Jack is learning about himself in Broadway Bound. “You see the two boys in the family coming into their own . . . at the same moment that their father is regretting paths not taken in life.”
The play, to Brownstein, is largely about the pain that comes with that mourning of the past, and the importance of all the self-reflection that comes along with that. “[Jack] has a really great line that I think says what the play is about more than anything. He says to his wife, ‘Learning about yourself can be a very dangerous business.’ That’s a lot about what the play is saying. . . What cost do we pay for learning about ourselves? And what cost do we pay for refusing to learn about ourselves?”