Comedy of Manners

Prolific playwright Neil Simon.Photo: Globe Photos

There’s a revealing scene in Broadway Bound—the last play in Neil Simon’s semi-autobiographical trilogy from the mid-eighties—that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about the playwright. It comes just after the Jerome family has gathered around the radio to hear a comedy sketch written by Eugene and his older brother and mentor, Stan. Parental pride quickly curdles as the Jeromes realize their fractious household has been mercilessly lampooned.

Stung by his parents’ anger, Stan (read: Danny Simon) insists that the characters were composites of family members and of everyone from the ’hood. But Eugene (read: Neil) knows better: “No,” he tells Stan. “It was only them.”

“I didn’t know I was so angry,” Eugene/ Neil continues. “Like there’s a part of my head that makes me this nice, likable, funny kid … and there’s the other part, the part that writes, that’s … angry, hostile.”

Mary Tyler Moore discovered just how hostile on December 3. Shortly before she was about to go onstage in an early preview of Simon’s latest play, Rose’s Dilemma, his wife handed her a letter from the playwright that said, among other things, “learn your lines or get out of my play.” Devastated, Moore quit.

In the theater—especially the union-dominated theater of New York City—certain protocols obtain. One is that when the author wants to communicate with the talent, it’s done through the director. Of course, when you’re Neil Simon—author of 33 plays that have made plenty of people plenty rich—well, you know what you can do with your protocols.

Still, this was Mary Tyler Moore, beloved star. Having a letter like that delivered before a performance seemed a shockingly cruel act from a writer viewed by a certain demographic as Broadway’s Santa Claus, Mr. Ha Ha Ha. To insiders, however, the Moore affair exposed something the entertainment world has long whispered about: Simon’s woman problem. He’s tough on all actors, but a long line of leading ladies, onstage and onscreen, have seen that angry side up close and personal. Four years ago, Rita Wilson quit after the first Los Angeles preview of Simon’s The Dinner Party, citing “creative differences.” Kim Basinger (who starred with Alec Baldwin in Simon’s fiasco The Marrying Man) still shudders at the mention of his name.

Even with male actors, Simon is capable of ruthlessness. The man who called the first installment of his memoir Rewrites is famous for wholesale tinkering right up to curtain time on opening night, and the actors had better be able to keep up. He is also famously nervous and retributive when lines aren’t scoring the laughs he expects, and clearly Moore was having trouble; she was wearing an earpiece so that lines could be fed to her. “You know what that does to the timing of a comedy?” notes one incredulous observer.

But the deeper problem lies in Simon’s view of women. It’s a retrograde take that tends to make contemporary women (and men) squirm in their seats, even—particularly—when Simon thinks he’s being sympathetic. His relationships with female characters and actresses tend to be as tumultuous as his offstage life through five marriages (two to the same woman).

None of this diminishes Simon’s stature. Since Come Blow Your Horn in 1961, he’s been turning out shows like mad. You know the big ones: The Odd Couple is one of the most perfect comedies ever written. Then came Barefoot in the Park. Plaza Suite. The Prisoner of Second Avenue. The Sunshine Boys. Chapter Two. They’re Playing Our Song. Brighton Beach Memoirs, which made a star of Matthew Broderick. Biloxi Blues. Broadway Bound. Lost in Yonkers won the Pulitzer Simon was convinced he’d never get.

It’s an amazing list, the apotheosis of entertainment for the middlebrow, expense-account high rollers, and, sure, tourists. But Simon’s been more than a boulevard gagmeister. Maybe not Proust, yet he has always mined his life—and the lives of anyone within shouting distance—for material. And he forged links with first-class artists like Mike Nichols, who staged Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple; with Bob Fosse on his Fellini-based Sweet Charity; and with Michael Bennett, who directed God’s Favorite. Later, when Bennett was readying A Chorus Line for opening, he asked Simon to punch up the show. Probably his most famous, uncredited contribution was, “Suicide in Buffalo is redundant”—a Borscht Belt gag line in a postmodern musical.

But here’s the thing about Neil Simon: When Come Blow Your Horn opened in 1961, the golden age of Broadway already was over and the musical was in eclipse. TV was doing the boulevard comedy better than Broadway, and rock and roll was replacing the theater as the source of popular music. Didn’t matter. Simon, who honed his comedic skills in the take-no-prisoners service of Sid Caesar and Phil Silvers, kept churning out the hits, thinly veiled stage fictions about his marriages, his divorces, his family, even his brother’s friends.

Lately, however, a changed theatrical landscape and old age—Simon’s 76 and suffers from kidney failure—have robbed him of the surefire touch that made audiences pay attention. With the exception of The Dinner Party—whose Broadway cast featured boomer-bait Henry Winkler and the late John Ritter—Simon hasn’t had a hit since 1991’s Lost in Yonkers. What he has written recently is a lot of awful plays that probably shouldn’t have been produced, though, to paraphrase a lyric from A Chorus Line: He’s a writer; a writer writes.

The truth? Even Broadway has passed Neil Simon by. That fact adds a certain poignance to the bitter rift with Our Mary, also many years from the height of her fame.

“All Neil’s great plays were about his life as it was happening, but now he’s living in the past,” says a person close to Rose’s Dilemma. “This is ultimately about two people who used to be king and queen.”

Comedy of Manners