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 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 seventies, 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.