Simon's Playground

Phoenix theater companies love his work, even if audiences always don't

When Neil Simon's name appears in print, it's usually set off by one of those nearly epigrammatic phrases like "a name that is synonymous with American comedy," or "Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright." Given the number of Simon plays that was produced here last year, his name might well have been appended with "King of the Phoenix stage." For booking frequency, the multiple Tony Award-winning playwright's work beat out Shakespeare two-to-one during the 1996-97 season. Eight of Simon's better-known works were presented by seven different companies. Three opened on the same weekend.

Last season's production flurry and a pre-Broadway run of Proposals, his latest work, playing now at the Orpheum Theatre, suggest that Phoenix is a Simon kind of town. But apparently all that is Simonized is not gold. Ticket sales for last year's Simonfest were reportedly disappointing, and only two companies are producing his plays this season. Despite all the hoopla over Proposals, Simon may have lost his Midas touch in Phoenix.

While Simon made money for Arizona Jewish Theatre Company last year (two of its four shows were Simon comedies, a strategy it's repeating this year), several other companies report that sales were only slightly better for Neil Simon plays than for the rest of their fare.

"Chapter Two didn't do as well for us as we expected it to," says Marc Kellenberger, Phoenix Theatre's development director. In fact, that show fared only slightly better than the company's two worst box-office duds, despite it starring Phoenix favorite Kathy Fitzgerald in her first post-Broadway performance here. A few months later, a road-company production of The Odd Couple played to half-empty houses at the Chandler Center for the Arts.

"Most of our shows sell out," reports Katrina Mueller, the Chandler Center's events coordinator. "We thought a Neil Simon play was a sure bet, but, by the time it opened, audiences were pretty Simoned out." Despite The Odd Couple's lousy sales, Mueller says she's willing to take another chance on booking another Simon play, "because his name carries a guarantee that we're going to get some kind of audience."

Proposals' producers are hoping that the Phoenix audience response will help polish the new romantic comedy before it settles on Broadway. At a press conference last March to announce its debut here, Simon said that Phoenix is the "perfect proving ground" for his work, which is pretty insulting when you consider that his tales of middle-class American life are all painfully passe and peopled with emotionless automatons.

But someone in Simon's camp did his or her homework: According to Samuel French Inc., which licenses Simon's plays to theater companies around the world, Phoenix ranks near the top of the list of cities that frequently stage Neil Simon plays. French spokesperson Arden Heide explains it with a polite jab. Simon comedies are popular, he says, "because they stand up so well in amateur theater. There are some really fine plays out there that don't come across unless you have excellent actors and a good director. You have to be really untalented to ruin one of Simon's plays--they're sort of foolproof."

Heide believes that our proximity to Sun City likely has something to do with Simon's success here. "Phoenix is right up there with parts of Florida and upstate New York for licensing Simon plays," he says. "Anywhere you've got a lot of New York retirees, you've got a Neil Simon audience. For them, seeing one of his stories is like looking at an old photo album of New York."

Spoon-feeding tired old comedies to a septuagenarian audience won't ensure the success of local theater, according to at least one local producer. "When you book Neil Simon, you're sending a message to your audience that says, 'We are uncool and we're going to give you stuff you've seen before,'" says Mike Fenlason of the Unlikely Theatre Company, a playhouse that produces classics and new works by local writers. He says optioning Simon's work won't build audience loyalty. "The audience that turns up for a Simon comedy is going to want any old sitcom, and since they can find that at most little theaters, they don't develop a loyalty to your company."

Despite his disdain, Fenlason admits that Simon plays dependably fill the coffers of struggling community playhouses, even though Simon's shows rarely sell out anymore. "It's too bad that fresher, more talented playwrights--like Christopher Durang or Nicky Silver--aren't considered foolproof. Simon provides no challenge; his plays are just about making money so the company can stay afloat."

"No one is mistaking this stuff for art," Heide says of Simon's oeuvre. "Face it. Fewer people have heard of Paddy Chayefsky than Neil Simon, and he's just going to keep getting bigger, even if he's produced in Phoenix every week and doesn't sell every seat. And you can bet that, after Proposals plays Broadway next year, you'll have another rush of Neil Simon shows in your town. I guarantee it."

Neil Simon's Proposals continues through Thursday, September 11, at the Orpheum Theatre, 203 West Adams. For more details, see Calendar.

 
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