Bashing Neil Simon has been almost de rigueur for highbrow critics since the playwright had his first hits in the early sixties. But now that he’s 82 [Editor’s note: this story was originally published in 2009] and in iffy health, and a major revival of two of his most celebrated works—the first and third parts of the Brighton Beach trilogy, Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound — is about to open, it’s hard not to feel nostalgic for the popular theater he once dominated. For better and worse, Simon’s plays — in their complacency, insularity, and, yes, hilarity —connected with their audience on a level that theater almost never does anymore.
Simon’s wisecrack-laden comedies made him, by many estimates, the most commercially successful playwright of all time. For a quarter-century, you could count on one of his 30-plus plays or musicals to be packing ’em in on Broadway, and for one of his 25-plus films (some based on plays, some original) to turn up at a movie house near you. You couldn’t get away from the man; he was even more prolific than his Caesar’s Hour writers’-room colleague Woody Allen. Simon was a celebrity playwright in an age with so few of them — big enough for newsweekly covers, talk-show spots, and even a guest-starring role in a Bob Hope special.
After delivering a string of uninspired (though, in many cases, moneymaking) plays in the late ‘70s, Simon had the smarts to reinvent himself, reaching back to his childhood to produce the Brighton Beach trilogy, three naturalistic ensemble dramas hailed by some critics as a leap forward from his trademark gripe- and yukfests. These were followed in 1991 by Lost in Yonkers, arguably his most accomplished work, which won a Tony and a Pulitzer over stiff competition from John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation. Then the King of Broadway began a slow decline, ending in a bitter move to lower-stakes Off Broadway, where his plays generated little excitement — apart from a scandal in 2003 when he fired off a vicious note to Rose’s Dilemma star Mary Tyler Moore, who couldn’t keep up with his rewrites: “Learn your lines or get out of my play.” She got out of his play — in tears and rage — two weeks before the opening. Audiences, for their part, never came.
Since then, near-silence. Recent star-laden Broadway revivals of Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple have been embarrassments, prompting the Times’s Ben Brantley to write that “early Neil Simon retains its original freshness about as well as sushi” — a bit of bitchery made more devastating because you can imagine it popping up in a Simon play. (Something like: “Has it held up?” “Like 50-year-old sushi.” “They didn’t have sushi 50 years ago. You ate undercooked fish, you got tapeworm.”)
Even when he pretends to shrug it off, Simon is clearly bugged by critics’ carping, and goes on about it in his memoirs and in introductions to his plays. He attributes his lack of stature to being popular; critics, he says, prefer the esoteric. And he’s partly right, although not in the way he thinks. As playwrights go, Simon is a spoon-feeder. For most of his career, he has never let a moment — a dramatic beat — pass without a barb or a kvetch. Forget subtext: It’s all bellowed. The irrational and ambiguous have no place. The characters are earthbound to a fault. Few speeches are so important that they cannot be interrupted by complaints about a bad back, palpitations, ulcers, nerve spasms, panic attacks — a surefire way to touch base with his audience, especially older, Jewish theatergoers, never ones to suffer in silence. Although there’s a sense in one or two plays that the world has gone meshuga, politics never intrude. The social order goes unquestioned. Sexual identity isn’t in play. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: You don’t have to be Brecht, Odets, or Miller to write a funny comedy. It’s just that the insularity, the sheer self-centeredness of Simon’s work, can be stifling. No wonder his characters are so miserable: They think of little but their aches and pains.
On the other hand, insularity was Simon’s calling card. It’s amazing to realize that the feathery domestic comedy Barefoot in the Park, his first smash, opened in 1963 — after Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, on the cusp of the counterculture, massive social upheaval, and the rise of Off Broadway. Simon was retro from the get-go.
That’s not to say his plays are entirely comforting. There’s anxiety running through them, often about real estate and the omnipresent threat of homelessness. Poor neatnik Felix moves in with sloppy Oscar, because where else can he live? The hero of The Prisoner of Second Avenue loses his job and goes bonkers when the urban jungle invades his private space. Estranged parents have to bunk with their kids; estranged kids bust into their parents’ homes. The two boys in Lost in Yonkers must stay with their tyrannical German grandmother when debt collectors drive their father into exile. In Brighton Beach Memoirs, the young hero’s aunt and her daughters are forced to live in close quarters with his family (in real life, it was Simon and his brother who had to move in with relatives). The device makes good dramatic sense, of course: Throw volatile, disparate characters into a tight space and watch the fireworks. But I think there’s something more: Simon was writing for an affluent audience not far removed from the Depression and tenement life, people who were both proud of and a little antsy about their new suburban or Upper East Side digs. He allowed them to laugh at fears they might not even have been able to articulate.
He may have been our most successful playwright, but he was also our neediest. When he moved on to darker, riskier subjects, Simon kept one eye on his audience, as if scared of losing the crowd for even a second. As Broadway Bound and his memoirs suggest, he wanted the approval of his parents and their friends — non-theatergoers with no time for fancy-pants Expressionism, convinced that the only measure of worth was mass acclaim. It’s a revealing moment in the film The Goodbye Girl when an artsy director pumps his mother for a verdict on his (risible) production and then, in spite of her waffling, runs through the theater hollering, “My mother loved it!” In Simon’s universe, there’s nothing more pathetic than a mama’s boy who’s willfully blind to his mother’s disapproval.
Simon certainly wasn’t. Brighton Beach Memoirs depicts an overbearing, relentlessly critical mother who monitors every move in her house. Simon’s young alter ego, Eugene, yields to her dominance as if it’s a Jewish boy’s lot in life: There’s barely a hint in his wry but sunny nature that the hypercritical atmosphere has damaged him. It wasn’t until Lost in Yonkers that Simon could have a character raise a peep of protest against a matriarch from hell, and then he had to put it oh-so-tentatively in the mouth of her daughter, the backward child-woman Bella.
But symptoms of Simon’s smothered, resentful psyche are all over his plays, not just in the fussy, anal-retentive characters, but in the fussy, anal-retentive writing. He’s famous for holding actors to the letter of the text, and those with their own distinctive rhythms sometimes didn’t survive rehearsals. A young Robert De Niro, fresh off Taxi Driver, was cast in a film called Bogart Slept Here, which shut down when De Niro was fired for being a mite internal. Harvey Keitel was dumped from the film of The Sunshine Boys and replaced with the more Jewish-inflected Richard Benjamin. Christopher Walken’s drill sergeant in the film of Biloxi Blues is a rare instance of an actor’s meeting Simon’s specifications and yet making the role his own. A trained stage actor, Walken keeps to the meter, but he’s Walken—he elongates words, steals beats from the end of one line and adds them to the next, and injects creepy little laughs at his own sadistic turns of phrase. The aforementioned Bella was Simon’s most compelling character (especially as played by Mercedes Ruehl in the stage and screen versions of Lost in Yonkers) precisely because her rhythms are all messed up, because there’s a disconnect between her thoughts and words that’s unprecedented in Simon’s work.
The playwright’s two volumes of memoir suggest, for all their self-attention, an unexamined life. They dwell on his rise to fame, his hits and flops, his courtships of various mates, his real-estate purchases. He’s very moving when he talks about his first wife, Joan, who died of cancer at a young age, but he rarely demonstrates much empathy, and he never gives you a sense that he can see himself through others’ eyes. It’s hard to reconcile the sinned-against narrator of those books with the tales of backstage tyranny like the one that sent poor Mary Tyler Moore sobbing from the theater. Did this playwright ever notice other people long enough to be able to forget himself and inhabit someone else?
That said, his obsessive work ethic didn’t go to waste: Some of Simon’s plays are genuinely boffo. One reason The Odd Couple is his most enduring work (it turned into stale sushi only when it was miscast with two Felixes, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick) is that Felix — the needy, anal-retentive whiner who’s far more comfortable with women than men — is seen through the eyes of Oscar Madison, one of the only anal-expulsive characters in Simon’s repertoire. Oscar makes glorious messes — he’d give Simon’s mother a stroke. Parts of Plaza Suite, set in a hotel that for Simon’s tribe was the ultimate in luxe, are a howl. In William Goldman’s The Season, the author tells of Simon removing laughs from the script because they were killing the pace: “It got so insane. There was a moment … where George [C. Scott] said something to Maureen [Stapleton], gestured, turned and walked to the door, and they laughed. We cut the line out altogether; he just gestured, walked to the door. They wouldn’t stop laughing. Finally we had him go straight to the door, and they laughed at that.”
Although most of Simon’s movies are stagebound and claustrophobic, his screenplay for The Heartbreak Kid is stunningly good. It’s his only work in which the main character’s obsession with a shiksa goddess has a subtext of Jewish self-loathing, and director Elaine May’s off-the-beat timing gives the lines some air. The bitchery of Simon’s Sunshine Boys is more than for laughs — it suggests a poignant longing for a dying showbiz (and cultural) past. Simon’s underrated Rumors proved he could pull off the mechanics of farce — no mean feat. And Lost in Yonkers, though sometimes ungainly, deserved many of its accolades. Too bad that isn’t the play they’ve chosen to revive: Brighton Beach Memoirs is a piece of shopworn, unfocused realism that would have seemed old-fashioned in the 40’s. (That said, the cast of the new production is tremendous.)
Neil Simon embodies a different age, when you tried out a play at the Shubert in New Haven, in Boston, in Philly, in Wilmington, and fiddled and handed the actors new lines as they were going onstage and tossed out whole acts if you needed to. I remember seeing the radiant young Marsha Mason in The Good Doctor at the Schubert, right around the time that she and Simon got hitched. It wasn’t much of a play, but there was a live-wire feel to seeing it in process. Even one of Simon’s biggest duds, God’s Favorite, was fun in New Haven with a solemn Simon visible in back. The most entertaining stories in his memoirs are the ones in which he’s working on those plays out of town, stressed but in his element, measuring laughs and watching his audience watch his work.
But there’s a price to pay for watching an audience so attentively, for striving to find a too-harmonious balance between bathos and clownishness, for flattering and spoon-feeding instead of leading people somewhere they haven’t been. When that audience moves on (or dies out), the works don’t evolve. They remain a product of their era and place — forever of their time instead of perpetually new.