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.
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.
Jack suffers a heart attack when he tries too hard to sustain a day job cutting raincoats while moonlighting as a cab driver, and playing father to an extended family that resents his advice and authority.
All of the high-pitched conflicts are resolved happily in the synthetic universe Simon inhabits. Stanley decides not to join the Army and comes home, Blanche decides not to move out just yet, Dad's heart attack slows him down, but he survives. The family is even overjoyed to learn that a huge family of its Polish relatives has escaped the pogroms of Poland, and will soon be arriving to further overcrowd the lives of its American cousins. The survival of the refugees is good news, of course, but Simon has his family happily contemplating their arrival, whereas we can only wince at the psychological snake pit they are unwittingly joining.
The production has been mounted with worthy attention to details, particularly in the period clothes by Rebecca Powell. The set and lights by Geof Eroe provide a lively ground plan, picturesquely lighted, if not always visibly. Offstage, Joe Bousard tinkles lilting airs on a live piano, which sometimes makes the play seem like music-hall skits. Director Claude File has managed to let Simon be funny without advertising the punch lines, and generally has guided his cast toward simple honesty, even when Simon wallows in cheap theatrics.
As for the actors, Marla Stollar stomps through her part as Nora with little variation, but the wan Jenny Hintze is suitably understated as the pampered little sister Laurie. Janet Arnold achieves a kind of Mammy Yokum sincerity and Mark De Michele is stalwart as an impossibly cardboard patriarch. Robyn Allen brings beauty and dignity to the troubled Blanche. The problem with the boys is that they are just a little long in the tooth to be playing teenagers, even though they do so with considerable vigor. (Matthew Broderick was still a teenager when he played Eugene on Broadway.) It would be great to see Kary play Stanley opposite an adolescent Eugene.
Still, it is Kary's charm and talent that keep the evening afloat with a relaxed, spontaneous performance that rings truer than the high-pitched melodrama through which he guides us safely to port.
Across town on Peoria Avenue, the venerable amateur troupe Theater Works is looking back to one of Simon's most hilarious comedies. Plaza Suite, which played on Broadway in 1968 for 1,096 performances, is the first of three collections of one-act comedies written around the gimmick of taking place in a single hotel room. California Suite followed in 1976 (445 performances) and the most recent was London Suite, produced off Broadway last year, for a disappointing run. Another trilogy of sorts!
Perhaps it is too cynical to see the commercial advantages of a single set as Simon's chief inspiration here, but as he is our most commercially successful playwright, it is an indication that Simon always has kept one eye on the box office, from conception to delivery.
The first act of Plaza Suite introduces "The Visitors From Mamaroneck," a middle-aged couple on the cusp of celebrating the 24th--or is it the 23rd?--anniversary of their marriage. Karen, the wife, has orchestrated an irresistible return, complete with champagne and caviar, to the same suite at the Plaza Hotel where they consummated their vows on their wedding night.
This playlet is the most substantial of the evening, and it reveals the bankrupt vision at the heart of Simon's dramatic technique. The situation is compelling and touching. Karen is dimly aware that her husband, Sam, has wandered from their marriage. The momentous occasion of their anniversary, brimming with Karen's raw hope for connubial renewal, brings the altered circumstances of their deceitful relationship into stark relief.
Sam's young secretary Jean arrives to inform Sam that he is urgently needed at the office. Sam agrees to leave, forcing Karen to confront him with his infidelity. She offers him the freedom to continue his dalliance, as long as he can reaffirm honestly the mutual trust on which marriage is based. With consummate insensitivity, Sam persists in keeping his tryst with Jean rather than spend the anniversary with his wife. Left alone, Karen eyes the handsome waiter who brings the champagne, and Simon leaves us with a dirty chuckle to imagine how she might find her way through the night to the inevitable consequences awaiting her the next day.
Typically, Simon evades the moral dilemma with glib gags. While we are made to feel the vulnerability of the wife, the husband's sexual obsession is not examined, and the cynical ending perversely justifies the husband's treachery, as if infidelity is inevitable.
The second act, "The Visitors From Hollywood," is a smutty sex farce about the reunion of two New Jersey schoolmates, whom life has separated to disparate fates. Jesse is now a successful Hollywood producer who, sickened by the slick life of success, longs to rediscover some of his teenage innocence with his former girlfriend Muriel. She is now married, and has grown into a voracious celebrity hound. This ships-passing-in-the-night scheme is written in broad, vulgar strokes, in which Simon manages to make the woman the predator in this not-so-innocent hotel-room get-together. The piece has aged rather badly, because all the celebrities who must be mentioned would be familiar only to a geriatric crowd like that at Theater Works, which amiably giggled along with recognition of names like Jeff Chandler.
The third act is called "The Visitors From Forest Hills" and is a classic Simon sitcom. This time the room at the Plaza has been booked by a wedding party, but Norma, the suburban mother of the bride, is distressed to discover her daughter Mimsey has locked herself in the bathroom, and refuses to come out for the nuptials. Her father, Roy, comes bursting in with all the comic fervor of a man who knows just how much each item of this wedding is costing, and joins his wife in berating, pleading, cajoling and threatening Mimsey with the dire consequences of her cold feet. Comic recriminations fly about like a demonic dart game, frequently scoring a bull's eye of hilarity. The fun of the farce is the physical comedy Roy is obliged to perform while trying to climb along the outside ledge to the bathroom, while under attack by pigeons and a sudden rainstorm.
Of course, in the end, the tempest is abated by having the groom, Borden, come to reason with Mimsey, but all he does is tell her to "cool it!" This seems to reach the daughter with a logic utterly beyond her parents' comprehension, and so she emerges to marry Borden and live happily--well, at least through the ceremony.
This play offers the contrast between the generations that was such easy fodder for comedy in the late '60s, without any genuine insights about human behavior. It does effectively satirize the foolish extremes our social customs require us to endure in order to seek simple human needs, like love. It is the sort of inspired mechanical comedy of which Simon is an indisputable master.
Filmgoers will remember the hilariously manic performances of Maureen Stapleton and Walter Matthau as the parents of the bride, and we can be grateful that Hollywood captured the essence of Simon with such definitive sharpness. The third play scores with a timeless spoof of the individual screwed by his own social conventions, making it still sparkle nearly 30 years later--although it has been a long time since any mother named her child Mimsey.
The production features the kind of performances that affect with their sincerity at Theater Works. The tour-de-force challenge of playing three different couples falls to Dina Kay and Tony McGraw, who skim the comic surfaces admirably in parts that don't allow much depth. Director Wes Martin has staged the proceedings with inventive elan, played at a welcomely brisk pace. Gregory Jaye's set is ample and handsome, though it bears little resemblance to a room in New York's Plaza Hotel, and it is always disconcerting to see walls shake when doors are slammed.
If Simon's your pie man, hunker down and take advantage of this feast of laughs. Next year, Arizona Jewish Theatre Company promises two more by Simon: They're Playing Our Song and Laughter on the 23rd Floor. After so much gooey sweetness, I'll need a shot of insulin.
Arizona Jewish Theatre Company's production of Brighton Beach Memoirs continues through Sunday, June 16, in Stage West at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe.
Plaza Suite continues through Sunday, June 16, at Theater Works, 9850 West Peoria Avenue in Peoria.
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