An update on Neil Simon
After swearing that he was through writing plays, first on Broadway, then Off, Neil Simon is back on Broadway in 2001. His new play The Dinner Party starred John Ritter and Henry Winkler. It played at the Music Box Theatre, opening last October and closing on September 1, 2001 to make room for the Stephen Sondheim-John Weidman musical Assassins. Unfortunately, after the destruction of the World Trade Center, this great musical about presidential assassins and would-be assassins (including Sam Byck, who intended to crash a 747 into the White House) has been postponed indefinitely. Sometimes art imitates life at its own peril.
Neil Simon, however, plays on. His newest work, Forty-five Seconds from Broadway, opens November 11 at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. It's set in the Cafe Edison, aka "The Polish Tea Room." The title, of course, is a takeoff on George M. Cohan's 1906 musical Forty-five Minutes from Broadway.
Writing for the stage must be addictive: at age 74, Simon could certainly retire to the comfort of writing the occasional screenplay from his home in Bel Air, but apparently the Muse won't let him!
edited by Gary Konas, published by Garland Publishing, Inc., 1997. Here are excerpts from my introductory chapter.
Chekhov talked about the theme of his life's work. He said it was just trying to show people how absurdly they live their lives. That is what I try to do. I do it through the medium of comedy, but I don't do it just to evoke a laugh from an audience. I do it also to show them how absurdly we all live our lives.
- Neil Simon
In February 1991, as Lost in Yonkerswas about to open in New York, Neil Simon said to critic David Richards, "I'm telling you now, John Guare is going to win the Pulitzer Prize. Even if my play is successful, I will never win the Pulitzer. There are regional theaters that won't do my work just because I'm Neil Simon."
Two months later Lost in Yonkerswon the Pulitzer Prize for Drama over Guare's Six Degrees of Separationand Prelude to a Kissby Craig Lucas. In reporting the drama jury's recommendations to the Pulitzer Advisory Board, Douglas Watt spoke for his four colleagues when he wrote that Lost in Yonkers was the only play nominated by all five, and that they judged it "a mature work by an enduring (and often undervalued) American playwright."
To be sure, "mature," "enduring," and "American" all apply to Simon. But "undervalued" is the key word, as many in the theatre and academic communities have ignored or dismissed Simon, apparently believing he isn't a serious playwright because he writes comedies. Perhaps it is natural, moreover, to doubt whether any writer who has enjoyed his level of commercial success could really be a world-class dramatist too.
We should realize, however, that enduring quality need not be incompatible with popularity. The 85-year-old Giuseppe Verdi once advised the new director of La Scala to "read the [critical reviews] very little but instead study most attentively the reports from the box office. These, whether you like it or not, are the only documents of your success or failure.... Remember, the theatre is meant to be full, not empty." Today we recognize this man whose goal was to fill seats as one of the three greatest operatic composers of all time--and he still packs them in. Verdi reminds us that there's a difference between pleasing and pandering: one can sell out houses without selling out principles.
The critical bias against Simon--clearly a dramatist who pleases--may be fading somewhat. From a single query in the New York Times Book Reviewand one brief message posted on an Internet newsgroup, I received two dozen responses from a variety of writers, including several highly respected critics. Every contributor to this casebook has been eager to take Simon seriously--while also appreciating his humor--and to share their personal viewpoint on this man's career. The articles that follow measure Simon's work by the same standards we employ to evaluate the work of O'Neill, Hellman, and Miller.
The front cover of the third volume of Simon's collected plays includes an illustration depicting him peering with an uncertain smile from behind a curtain. This pose seemed especially appropriate for the playwright as he entered the '90s. Simon has become a wary--though still witty--observer of life, and during his fourth decade as playwright he seemed to be emerging to confront some of life's nagging problems with less reliance on a comic curtain than in his earlier plays. His canvas remains the American family home (occasionally a hotel room or office), but in the Brighton Beach trilogy and Lost in Yonkershe has added richer colors to his palette.
Yet he remains a most pragmatic artist. Simon has said,
Every time I come up with a philosophy of life, I find that my circumstances in life change and I have to come up with a new philosophy. Therefore, I have decided to drop the philosophy and to continue with my life.
This statement is typical of Simon. His characters, too, tend to "drop the philosophy" and continue with their lives, finding ways to adapt to difficult conditions. Instead of wallowing in existential angst, they choose to move on.
Conflict has always been the stuff of drama. The conflicts in Neil Simon's plays are deceptively simple because they tend not to be earthshaking; they may be fueled by something as simple as a roommate's annoying habits, a young soldier's awkward encounters with women, or a couple trying to deal with their daughter's pre-wedding jitters. However, the familiarity of Simon's plot situations evokes a smile of audience recognition, which his characters--who tend to be better equipped with quips than the rest of us--magnify into helpless laughter. The real joke is that under these conditions we are as vulnerable as when we sob at The Three Sisters. No, Simon is not Chekhov, but a simple joke writer he's not. Behind the comic premise lurks a real problem that needs to be solved.
More info on the book's organization
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