Simply Simon

Neil Simon is the most popular playwright in American theatre history. He has written some 27 plays for Broadway, accumulating close to 17,000 performances. Valley audiences now have a chance to see two of his better plays in revival at two local theatres, giving us the opportunity to contrast early with late Simon and to delve into the phenomenon of his success.

Simon was born on the Fourth of July in 1927 to a family of Brooklyn Jews. His first ascendancy was as a gag writer on television for Sid Caesar and then for The Phil Silvers Show, the ancient classic sitcom in which Silvers portrayed Sergeant Bilko. These ancestral roots reveal themselves throughout Simon's writing career.

Simon's Broadway debut was with a boulevard comedy called Come Blow Your Horn in 1961, which ran for 677 performances. Five of his plays have been musicals (like Sweet Charity and Promises Promises), but he is best-known for making America laugh at itself, with a string of 18 hits before he ran out of gas on an inanity called Fools in 1981, which closed after only five weeks.

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Despite his mastery of the one-liner, Simon was perpetually piqued that he was regularly dismissed as a substantial writer of plays. In the first two decades of his commercial success, he received only one Tony Award, for The Odd Couple in 1965. He became determined to demonstrate that he should be taken seriously, and so he turned from his predictable formula of thin comedy to the autobiographical form, mined so memorably by the masters he longed to emulate: Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams.

Simon's first uncertain turn in the direction of deeper drama was Brighton Beach Memoirs, drawing from his Brooklyn childhood prior to the Second World War, wherein he fictionalizes his own narrative character as "Eugene Morris Jerome." Always fond of trilogies (and hoping to parlay the prestige associated with the form into assessments of his own work), Simon followed the lives of these characters on into later years with sequels: Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound.

Arizona Jewish Theatre Company has remounted the first of these in a revival that largely succeeds on the charm of Michael Kary (who similarly invigorated the Grand Canyon University production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead earlier this season) as the adolescent narrator, Eugene. The play details at agonizing length a series of melodramatic confrontations, packed into an unlikely week in September of 1937. Fifteen-year-old Eugene (who longs to be either a writer or a Yankee pitcher) shares a bedroom with his admired older brother Stanley (played honestly by a miscast Jason Kuykendall), and the boys' room has been divided to accommodate two female cousins, a nubile 16-year-old named Nora and her fragile younger sibling Laurie, who has a "fluttery heart" condition.

The two girls are the daughters of Aunt Blanche, who has come to live with the Jerome family after her husband died at age 36, and is herself losing her eyesight. The house is maintained by Eugene's beleaguered parents, Kate and Jack, whose domestic struggles are strongly reminiscent of those of the Loman household in Death of a Salesman. In a casting curiosity, the parents are played by AJTC producer Janet Arnold and frequent director Mark De Michele, for once strutting their stuff onstage rather than behind the scenes.

The play is a clumsy confessional in which little is convincingly dramatized. Brighton Beach would be an impressive first play, but it is shockingly crude for the 20th play of an established writer. The best part of the evening is the wry, self-conscious humor of Eugene's narration that keeps the audience informed about the inner thoughts and pubescent lusts of our precocious hero.

However, Simon takes two hours and 45 minutes to introduce a series of melodramatic circumstances that would suffice for a year of soap opera. For example, the blossoming bosoms of Nora have been noticed by a talent scout for a Broadway show, but her dreams are thwarted by her mother's refusal to allow her to leave high school. She takes up with an offstage schoolboy, who nightly drives her to the cemetery, where we suspect more is going on than looking at her dad's gravestone. Meanwhile, against the prejudiced objections of Kate, Aunt Blanche is finally going to have a date with the Irish man who lives across the street with his aging mother. Her plot fizzles when the prospective beau conveniently has an automobile accident, leaving Blanche stranded without dinner. This is experienced as a major trauma, dividing mother from daughter and, more important, sister from sister.

Kate finally hits the ceiling and debases Blanche with long-hidden childhood resentments, in a scene that erupts with gratuitous, vituperative recrimination. So Blanche decides she must leave and go live with a friend in Manhattan Beach, sending for the girls as soon as she has a job, which may not be too soon, considering that she is apparently going blind, a threatening condition for a would-be seamstress.

Coincidentally, brother Stanley loses his weekly salary of $17 in a poker game, which sends him hurtling out of the house and over to the recruiting office to join the Army.

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