The Play (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
The play takes place in the sparsely furnished living and dining rooms of Grandma Kurnitz’s apartment above Kurnitz’s Kandy Store in Yonkers, New York. A small kitchen is off to one side. Doors lead to two bedrooms, a bathroom, and a staircase going directly down to the store. Jay and Arty are waiting in the living room while their father talks to Grandma Kurnitz in her bedroom. The boys heartily dislike and fear their authoritarian grandmother. Jay remarks that there is something peculiar about each of Grandma’s children. Their father, Eddie, trembles in fear of Grandma. Bella, their mentally ill aunt, is “a little . . . closed for repairs” upstairs. When Aunt Gert visits Grandma, she cannot finish a sentence without gasping for breath. Uncle Louie has become a bagman for gangsters.
Bella arrives in a state of confusion. She went to the movies but, unable to find the theater she was looking for, went to another one and wants the boys to go with her next week, if “I can find the wrong theater again.” Eddie comes out of the bedroom and explains to his sons that he went in debt to a loan shark to pay hospital and doctor bills for their mother when she was dying of cancer. He owes the loan shark nine thousand dollars. Until the outbreak of World War II opened up new jobs, Eddie had no hope of repaying him. Now he can earn that much money in a year, traveling through the South and West and selling scrap iron, but only if Grandma takes care of the boys while he is away. As much as they hate the idea, the boys agree to stay with her. Grandma, however, rejects Eddie’s request, telling him he is too weak and needs to grow up and solve his own problems. People, she says sternly, must be hard as steel to survive in the world. Grandma does not relent until Bella asserts herself by threatening to go away and leave her mother all alone if she does not take in the boys.
The passage of time is indicated by stage blackouts, during which the voice of Eddie is heard reading letters to his sons. In one scene, Aunt Bella confides to the boys that while at the movie theater she met an usher who wants to marry her. Although he is also mentally ill, the couple plans to open a restaurant if Grandma will loan them five thousand dollars. In another scene, Uncle...
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Dramatic Devices (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
Simon wrote a well-made Broadway play nearly every year. In this play he uses a straightforward chronological narrative structure. Each scene flows from the preceding one and directly advances the action. At the start of the play, the exchanges between Jay and Arty introduce all the characters and establish their roles. When Bella and her mother appear onstage, they live up to the audience’s expectations. Bella grows in emotional depth as the play develops, but Grandma does not deviate from the horrific figure the boys depicted. The personalities of Louie and Gert are similarly prefigured in the boys’ conversation that opens the play.
Scene changes are well managed. The stage darkens and Eddie’s voice is heard reading letters to his children. References to the cities he has visited help establish the passage of time as he travels across the South earning money. Hints of possible heart problems build suspense concerning his children’s eventual fate. At the end of the first act, Eddie’s voice-over provides an ironic contrast with the reality the audience has just observed.
Simon portrays Grandma’s character more through what she fails to do than by her direct actions. Never does she supply parental warmth or provide emotional support for her children. In the play’s most powerful scene she wastes not a syllable or breath refusing Bella’s cry for help. She ignores her daughter completely. Rising slowly, she turns and silently limps to her room, quietly closing the door behind her.
Although some critics faulted Simon for depending on one-line gags, in fact most laughs are built on previously introduced material and enhance the central themes of the play. Arty’s reference to Louie’s information that, although Grandma is in constant pain, she will not even take an aspirin, provides a surefire laugh when he tells his brother, “I’m afraid of her Jay. A horse fell on her when she was a kid and she hasn’t taken an aspirin yet.”
Compare and Contrast
Topics for Further Study
What Do I Read Next?
Bibliography and Further Reading
Bibliography (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
Sources for Further Study
Konas, Gary, ed. Neil Simon: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1997.
Kramer, Mimi. “Ill Apportioned Parts.” The New Yorker 67 (March 11, 1991): 75-77.
Lipton, James. “Neil Simon.” In Playwrights at Work: Paris Review, edited by George Plimpton. New York: The Modern Library, 2000.
Richards, David. “The Last of the Red Hot Playwrights.” New York Times Magazine, February 17, 1991, 30-36, 57, 64.
Simon, Neil. The Play Goes On: A Memoir. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999....
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