Commentary Magazine


Taking a Second Look at Neil Simon

In 1991, Neil Simon won a Pulitzer Prize for Lost in Yonkers, his 20th comedy to open on Broadway since 1961 and his 14th to run there for more than a year. Not only was he the only American playwright to have been so consistently successful at the box office, but he also wrote the books for three hit musicals and had become the only screenwriter in Hollywood history to have his name above the title. And while it had long been taken for granted by most drama critics that he was nothing more than a purveyor of light entertainment, Lost in Yonkers, which the Pulitzer jurors praised as “a mature work by an enduring (and often undervalued) American playwright,” was met with general acclaim. After Lost in Yonkers, even the Paris Review deigned to interview Simon.

Alas for Simon, Lost in Yonkers was not a new beginning but an end. Never again would Simon write a full-fledged stage hit or a commercially viable screenplay, and none of his plays has been successfully revived on Broadway, save as a star vehicle (like the 2005 production of The Odd Couple with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick). The most recent attempt, a 2009 revival of Brighton Beach Memoirs, whose original 1983 production had a 1,299-performance run, closed in a week.

That Simon’s creative spark should have subsided after three decades of hard use is not surprising. He had a spectacular run and remains the most commercially successful playwright this country has produced. Nor should it come as a surprise that the slam-bang style of stage comedy he perfected in The Odd Couple, his most perennially popular play, eventually lost its mass appeal. Tastes in comedy reflect contemporary mores, and no purely commercial comic writer, however talented he may be, has ever managed to bridge the yawning gap of sensibility that separates generation from generation. Only the greatest of stage comedies, whose humor is rooted in a profound comprehension of human nature and its unchanging foibles, remain genuinely funny for more than a quarter-century or so after their premieres.

But could it be that Neil Simon was in fact just that kind of playwright—a creator of genuinely serious comedies that do something more than evoke the passing scene in a clever way? A recent off-Broadway production of Lost in Yonkers suggests that at least some of Simon’s plays might be something more than period pieces.

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The most interesting works Simon has produced since 1991 are his memoirs, Rewrites (1996) and The Play Goes On (1999). As is often the case with such books, these candid, touching reminiscences tell more about their subject than he may have meant to reveal.

Born in 1927, Marvin Neil Simon was the son of a Jewish fabric salesman who found it hard to express such love as he had for his wife and children. Desperate for the affection that his father withheld, the self-conscious young man found a substitute of sorts by teaming up with his older brother Danny to write gags for stand-up comics and, later on, sketches for Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows and other early-TV variety series. “When an audience laughed, I felt fulfilled,” he confessed in Rewrites. “It was a sign of approval, of being accepted.”

Simon found it difficult to collaborate with his overweeningly self-confident brother, and in 1954 he dissolved their partnership. The fledging TV industry was then in the process of relocating from New York to Hollywood, where Danny Simon set up shop as a comedy writer. Neil stayed behind in New York, and by 1957, most of the Manhattan-based shows for which he wrote had moved West like his brother. So he decided to try his hand at a stage comedy.

Because Simon had previously specialized in variety-show comedy sketches, he had no understanding of how to structure a play. It took him four years of hard work to finish Come Blow Your Horn, and like all of his plays, Come Blow Your Horn bears the stamp of his experience as a gag-writer. Instead of relying on the dramatic force of a theatrical situation to generate laughter, Simon stacked the deck by salting the speeches with one- and two-line jokes whose metronomic rhythms clack away relentlessly: “You can’t tell me you actually ran away from home.” “Well, I cheated a little. I took a taxi.”

Simon employed the same style in his triumphant sophomore outing, Barefoot in the Park (1964), a romantic comedy about a young married couple that had a 1,530-performance run on Broadway and was then turned into an equally popular film starring Jane Fonda and Robert Redford. “With Neil Simon,” the playwright David Ives has said, “you can sort of walk out of the theater and hum the jokes, like humming the tunes from a musical.”

By the time he wrote The Odd Couple (1965), his third play, Simon had finally learned how to make his laugh lines “come purely out of character, rather than out of a joke,” as he said in his Paris Review interview. Although The Odd Couple is full of his insert-flap-A-into-slot-B gags, they are fully rooted in the quirks and nuances of the play’s protagonists and entirely grounded in the situation on which the play is based. In Simon’s words, The Odd Couple is about “two men who are divorced, move in together to save money to pay their alimony, and have the same fights with each other as they did with their wives.” To this ingenious notion is added the fuel of sharply contrasting characterization: Oscar Madison is a self-assured slob, Felix Ungar a sexually inhibited, obsessively neat neurotic. (The relationship between them, which has a powerful undercurrent of hostility, mirrors that of the shy playwright and his outgoing older brother, a trope that would recur throughout his career.)

But adept though he had become at generating laughter by manipulating a comic premise, he still felt the need to be ingratiating—and, presumably, to quell his longing for approval and acceptance—by using jokes to keep the viewer laughing continuously: “I got brown sandwiches and green sandwiches.” “What’s the green?” “It’s either very new cheese or very old meat.” It is as though he lacked confidence in his ability to hold our attention in any other way. As a result, The Odd Couple, effective though it is, too often feels like an uneasy cross between a classic stage comedy and a sitcom that telegraphs all of its punch lines by employing a noisy laugh track.

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Simon’s unprecedented commercial success—at one point in the mid-1960s he had five shows running simultaneously on Broadway—made him the heir to the anything-for-a-laugh comedy tradition of Kaufman and Hart. Yet he harbored greater ambitions. As he recalls in Rewrites, Simon was forcibly struck by how the Kennedy assassination and the Vietnam War had undermined the self-confidence of postwar America. The country’s collective sense of dread, which was heightened still further for Simon himself when his wife was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1971 and died soon after at the age of 40, made it impossible for him to keep on working in the lighthearted vein that had made him famous: “Carefree plays like Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple?.?.?.?were suddenly dated. They seemed naïve.”

Simon sought to darken his style in The Gingerbread Lady (1970), The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1971), and The Sunshine Boys (1972), a trio of urban comedies that are noticeably tougher and more melancholy in tone than their predecessors. “I used to ask, ‘What is a funny situation?,’” he told an interviewer. “Now I ask, ‘What is a sad situation and how can I tell it humorously?’” Immediately after his wife’s death, he wrote a comedy, God’s Favorite, updating the Book of Job to Long Island. 

His plays sought thereafter to mine the difficulties of his own life, most notably Chapter Two (1978), a barely fictionalized portrayal of his widower marriage to the actress Marsha Mason, and the deeply personal trilogy of Brighton Beach Memoirs (1983), Biloxi Blues (1985), and Broadway Bound (1986), in which he sought to make sense out of his journey from Depression-era near-poverty to fame and fortune.

The problem with these latter plays, as with the “darker” comedies that preceded them, is that they are slices of life with far too much frosting on top—in particular Brighton Beach Memoirs, in which Eugene Jerome, Simon’s fictional mouthpiece, tells how it felt to be a teenager in Brooklyn on the eve of World War II. His characters continue to talk like the borscht-belt stand-up comedians for whom he had once written (“Her windows are so filthy, I thought she had black curtains hanging inside”). Time and again they march up to the brink of deep feeling, then back away in an awkward flurry of slam-bang set-up and punch line. It is as if Simon felt obliged to apologize for daring to suggest, however briefly, that anyone could be truly moved by their plight.

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Not until Lost in Yonkers did Simon deal decisively with this problem—up to a point. The plot makes it sound like a second-rate TV farce: Eddie gets into hot water with a loan shark, stows his two boys with his gargoyle-like mother and goofy sister, and goes on the lam. What makes it work is that Simon has upped the emotional ante by turning Eddie into a grieving widower, his mother into a loveless monster, and his sister into a slightly retarded woman-child with mature sexual urges. The result is a play that casts a cool eye on the wranglings of a family so dysfunctional as to recall Philip Larkin’s harsh quatrain: “Man hands on misery to man.?/?It deepens like a coastal shelf.?/?Get out as early as you can,?/?And don’t have any kids yourself.”

The humor in Lost in Yonkers floats atop a roiling current of rancor and despair, so much so that Simon once claimed to have initially doubted its commercial viability:

Lost in Yonkers [was] an enormous success, but I thought I was writing the bleakest of plays. What I liked about it was that I thought it was Dickensian—two young boys left in the hands of dreadful people. What I was afraid of was that I would hear words like melodrama.

But Lost in Yonkers is by no means melodramatic. It aspires to and attains real pathos, above all in Simon’s treatment of Bella, the unhappy sister who confesses to her mother at play’s end that she “let boys touch me” in order to win their affection. And Bella’s cold-hearted mother is portrayed with a ferocity that is new in Simon’s work. Even Frank Rich, the New York Times critic who had long been one of Simon’s most stalwart opponents, was struck by the play’s harshness, remarking on its “raw anguish?.?.?.?the wounds run so deep that one feels it just may be his most honest.”

Once again, though, Lost in Yonkers is undermined by a combination of sentimentality (which manifests itself both in the predictably happy ending and in the letters that Eddie sends to his children during his self-imposed exile) and gratuitous jokiness. That sort of behavior makes sense when his characters are writers or writers-in-training (Oscar in The Odd Couple and the Simon stand-ins of Chapter Two and the trilogy) or retired vaudevillians (The Sunshine Boys). In Lost in Yonkers, by contrast, there is no good reason for any of the characters—least of all the children, who are rather too clearly patterned after the author and his older brother—to be so preternaturally adept at pleasing a crowd.

Lost in Yonkers made it clear that Simon had something serious to say about American family life. But what is the best way to realize so uneven a play on stage—and can any of his earlier plays profit from similar treatment? Comedy, after all, has changed utterly in the six decades since Simon was churning out skits for Sid Caesar and scripts for Phil Silvers. His wisecrack-driven style is no longer in sync with our more acerbic contemporary sensibilities. For this reason, it seems likely that his plays will continue to be performed only if actors and directors find a new way of performing them, one that cuts through the clatter of punch lines to find dramatic truth.

David Cromer’s failed 2009 Broadway revival of Brighton Beach Memoirs and Jenn Thompson’s much-admired 2012 off-Broadway revival of Lost in Yonkers pointed the way to this new approach. Both directors took care to desentimentalize the plays by staging them as though they were straight-down-the-center family dramas devoid of winks, nudges, and slapstick. (In addition, Thompson obtained Simon’s permission to cut Eddie’s letters to his children out of the script of Lost in Yonkers.) Each scene was played for truth, not laughter, and none of the cast members was too pretty or too cute. Above all, they carried themselves not like sitcom characters but human beings, harried and wearied by the unrelenting responsibilities of real life, and whenever they stopped trying to be funny and told you what they felt, you felt it with them.

While it is unlikely that such an approach could work with any of Simon’s early plays, it’s easy to see how it might serve to sharpen The Sunshine Boys, whose comedy is rooted not in sentiment but in the “bitter anger” (in Simon’s phrase) that the play’s principal characters have come to feel for one another in their old age. And it may well be that other middle-period Simon plays—in particular The Prisoner of Second Avenue, in which a prosperous middle-aged man has a nervous breakdown after he is laid off—could be resuscitated in a like manner.

It is noteworthy how many artistic directors of leading regional theaters continue to steer clear of Simon’s work, understandably assuming that to produce any of his comedies today would border on outright pandering. They should instead consider Simon a challenge—and examine the possibility that the most popular American playwright who ever lived has more to offer the thoughtful playgoer than dated laughter.

About the Author

Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street JournalSatchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.




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