Neil Simon Essay - Simon, (Marvin) Neil (Vol. 6)

Simon, (Marvin) Neil (Vol. 6)

Simon, (Marvin) Neil 1927–

Simon is one of the most popular playwrights in American theater history. To list his best known plays is simply to list his plays. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22.)

It seems that Jewish family life, like that of other persuasions, is rich in humor and small tragedies. In [Come Blow Your Horn] the accent is on humor.

The leading character is a young man who cannot get along with his father. The father, panting to be a grandfather, at frequent intervals asks his son: "Are you married?" The son, a bachelor, must answer: "No." Summoning what remains of his paternal authority, the father declares: "Then, you're a bum."

It is not your reviewer's intention to discourage anyone's interest in the play. The quoted dialogue is really funny in the context of the story. Indeed, it is hilarious. Come Blow Your Horn is one of the most refreshing comedies currently on Broadway. You can take your country cousins to see it with the assurance that they will be neither embarrassed nor bored. (pp. 355-56)

Theophilus Lewis, in America (© America Press, 1961; all rights reserved), May 20, 1961.

"Barefoot in the Park," is the kind of popular stage piece Broadway is always feverishly searching for, without any clear notion of what its elements are or any ability to analyze them even when the work has made one of its annual or biennial appearances. It is enough to know that success is in the air. To be a hit means, on Broadway, to not be a flop; to be good means to not be thought bad; to be intelligent means to not be thought stupid. In this negative fashion the commercial theater organizes the life of its products and distributes its praise and blame….

Mr. Simon's little endeavor, it should scarcely be necessary to say, is as ephemeral as a theatrical offering is possible to be (how perpetually astonishing it is, thirty seconds after the last curtain call, not to be able to remember a single thing that has happened). But there is nothing wrong with this, once you adjust your values. If Broadway presented only plays of this kind—inoffensive, rather charming, adroitly directed and performed, corrupting nothing—there would be no reason to complain, since the street would then be doing exclusively what it does best and we would be entirely free to look elsewhere, as we now do fretfully in any case, for solid, permanent, light-spreading works of dramatic art. But of course a comedy like "Barefoot in the Park" is extremely rare, and perhaps the chief reason for its being rare is that it is indistinguishable in the Broadway mind from "The Marriage-Go-Round" and "Mary, Mary."

Mr. Simon's chief virtue is his ease. He has a minor comic imagination and is wise enough—or has been helped to be wise enough—not to force it too far, with the result that he lets his inconsequential fable about life among the newly-married take itself casually into moderately amusing, because relatively free and unprepared, situations, instead of tamping it all down into one central, dragooned situation where comedy becomes the self-congratulating recognition of the familiar. He allows his young couple to inhabit their sixth-floor post-honeymoon walkup with some unpredictability and personal edge; he brings in auxiliary characters not in order to advance a spurious narrative but to extend the area of humorous surprise and spontaneous invention; he throws away a great many lines which a more mechanical contriver of entertainments would hang onto for dear life. (p. 226)

Richard Gilman, in Commonweal (copyright © 1963 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), November 15, 1963.

The Odd Couple … deals with the very real truth that our behavior is governed by an illogical need to exercise acquired self-centered compulsions, and that marriage is an infernal machine that permits two people to maintain their self-centeredness by being willing to put up with a degree of irritation from each other that would be unthinkable in any reasonable partnership….

While Mr. Simon's Felix Ungar appears essentially to be a pathetic, tragedy-tinged portrait, the form of his play is a comedy. Just as in Barefoot in the Park he made his laughter out of the way average people dealt with the major complex of minor annoyances that faced two people trying to live together in the impossible city of New York, so in The Odd Couple he makes comic cadenzas out of our bleats of agony at finding ourselves surrounded by a barbed-wire fence of trivial nuisances….

[All the characters] are blissfully unhappy but the pain of what they do to each other and to themselves is exploded into fierce humor….

There are, of course, many dangers in presenting a comedy with such sobering realities lying so close to the surface. Here one laughs with more restraint than one does, for instance, at the exaggerated antics of Luv, or at the less deeply troubled characters of Barefoot in the Park. For in The Odd Couple playwright Simon has partially answered those critics who complain that his plays are entertaining but insubstantial by giving them a truer but still reasonably laugh-strewn evening. (p. 44)

Henry Hewes, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1965 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), March 27, 1965.

"The Odd Couple" has the dirty trick known as charm. When you later read some of its funnier lines in somebody's Broadway column, you may be surprised at their relative flatness. You may find it hard to distinguish them from their neighbors—the gags from the unsuccessful shows. Charm has this distorting effect on judgment. You find yourself wanting to like jokes which, in a less charming context, might seem mechanical or embarrassingly thin. To put it another way, Bob Hope gets away with it, your Uncle Arthur doesn't.

Some of this charm is a simple quality of success. Rich men are notoriously witty; and shows marked "hit" don't have to strain to prove themselves. But "The Odd Couple" has more going for it than that. (pp. 51-2)

The dialogue is comfortable…, lived-in…. The opening poker-game is neatly orchestrated: the cards, the heat, the sandwiches, the heat, the cards … the rhythm reminds one slightly of the poker-game in Front Page, right down to the fussy grace-notes of the resident sissy; and this game recurs throughout like a Greek chorus, providing information, dark wisdom and a sense of other lives in other places….

Halfway through the second-act, there is a serious slump…, but this does not last for long. The break in rhythm, the moment spent picking at the joke, is mended, and the play ends strongly.

This kind of charm is not really a dirty trick—it only seems that way. (p. 52)

Wilfrid Sheed, in Commonweal (copyright © 1965 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), April 2, 1965.

Poker addicts will love the opening scene of [The Odd Couple]…. The scene is so hilarious that a writer of comedy less skillful than Neil Simon would save it for a climactic situation.

While the poker game may be the most zany single scene, there is no letdown in the buffoonery that follows. The dialogue is as effervescent as Bromo-Seltzer, and sight gags pop like flash bulbs at a banquet in honor of a political celebrity. If a merry laugh is like a medicine, as the Bible says, there are enough guffaws in The Odd Couple to stem an epidemic of blues. (pp. 810-11)

Theophilus Lewis, in America (© America Press, 1965; all rights reserved), May 29, 1965.

Whenever a playwright manages to be hilariously funny all night long—and Neil Simon managed to be hilariously funny all night long in Plaza Suite—he is in immediate danger of being condescended to…. He is, after all, only a genial, cunning gagman, perhaps a master of the one-liner who ought to be working for Bob Hope…. No man who can turn a laugh so readily, so unfailingly, so compulsively really, could possibly be mistaken for a serious craftsman. (p. 297)

I admired Plaza Suite very much, and not for the most obvious reason…, [which] is that this sort of apparently idle, always amiable, cork-popping improvisation is exceedingly difficult to bring off; if it weren't, we'd have hordes of such "trifles" instead of one good one every two years…. But there's a better reason for saluting him than that. What he is doing is precisely right—for him and for the form he works in. (p. 298)

[Were the numerous one-liners] at all funny unless one knew something—a pathetic little something—of the habits of middle-class suburbanites…? These were put-together lines, all right. But one of the things that had been put together was a modest experience of the way things actually are.

In short, a shadow of substance had become the base for the joke…. The fun had been carefully calculated; to have it, though, we found it necessary to slip past the simple business of knowing how inconsiderate life at fifty can be—in Tenafly or Tuckahoe. We had to know what it was like for these particular, just-a-little-bit-real people: how dumb their dreams were, what they'd missed that still teased them, where they'd put the scrapbook and what was in it. Nothing profound, mind you: only enough to make certain that a straight line would turn turtle in the isn't-it-too-bad circumstances. Let's just say that Bob Hope would never have gotten yocks with the excerpts. (p. 299)

One of the crazy mistakes we make in the contemporary theater is that of supposing that if something is serious at all it must be thoroughly, thumpingly serious—and must promptly be put into a bigger, deeper, soberer play. That is how we get our overinflated dramas in which almost nothing happens, certainly nothing ample enough to account for all of the soul-scratching, conscience-prodding, emotion-begging writhing that goes on. The play becomes overwrought because it is making too much of a small truth. There are small truths, and they are comic truths; they are truths of a size that can be accommodated in—and almost cheerfully covered over by—a quip…. The highest home of such truths is the epigram, which is, of all things, a one-liner. But there are some so commonplace that a wisecrack will take care of them, and thank God for that. If all men are trapped, some have the sense to see that they are trapped in a circus ring.

Mr. Simon seems to me a man of sense, using just the jigger and a half of substance that will make a decent drink, observing what he observes and cradling it in a joke that is about the right fit for it. His work is not only smooth and sunny, it is nicely proportioned—which is more than can be said for that of many of his perspiring fellows. He has no identity problem. (pp. 300-01)

Walter Kerr, "A Jigger and a Half," in his Thirty Plays Hath November (copyright © 1963, 1966, 1969 by Walter Kerr; reprinted by permission of Simon and Schuster, Inc.), Simon and Schuster, 1969, pp. 297-301.

Neil Simon keeps progressing as a playwright. "The Good Doctor," which opened last week at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, is unlike anything he's written before. It's unlike anything anyone has written before, in fact. It's fascinating theatre.

The show is billed as a new comedy with music, which is slightly misleading. More accurately, it's a collection of sketches, which the program says have been adapted and suggested from stories by Anton Chekhov. All are comic, at least to some extent, but some are also wistful and at least one is quite touching….

"The Good Doctor," being a collection of sketches, is naturally uneven in quality, but it's generally enjoyable and satisfying. Because of its lack of continuity and consistent mood it may be less popular than some of Simon's former hits, but it's one of his creditable accomplishments and one of the better shows of recent seasons. (p. 56)

Variety (© copyright 1973, by Variety, Inc.), December 5, 1973.

Neil Simon's ["The Good Doctor"] formally anoints its author as the great master of chutzpah. With the sly and sassy bravado which only that pungent Yiddish word can convey, America's most prolific and successful playwright has identified himself with Anton Chekhov. No, no, not Anton Chekhov the fat delicatessen waiter—Anton Chekhov the skinny Russian writer, the great playwright, who insisted that his plays were comedies, not tragedies.

Simon of course has Chekhov's problem in reverse: certain stuffed shirts and double-domes steadfastly refuse to take Simon's gag-filled plays, with their echoes of vaudeville and television, seriously. Simon is right to be bothered by this, since there is nothing so serious as comedy. The real critical question is not how serious Simon is, but how funny Simon is. In "The Good Doctor," which has been "adapted and suggested from stories by Chekhov," Simon seems to be trying to earn the merit badge for Weighty Boffolas by creating a hybrid character, a Neilon Simchek who represents the perfect synthesis of gags and gravity. Even his title is a cute semantic gargoyle—Chekhov of course was a doctor, and Simon's nickname, which has practically become a Homeric epithet, is Doc.

Simon creates an ambience for his transplant operation that is at once seductive and absurd—which is not a bad quick definition of good comedy.

Trying to use Chekhov to seduce us, Simon has been seduced by Chekhov. He thus denatures not Chekhov's impregnable sensibility but his own very pregnable one. It's not that he loses such qualities as the funny desperation of people in Chekhov's world—peasants, governesses, prostitutes, lovers—but that he loses such qualities as the funny desperation of his own hero in "The Prisoner of Second Avenue." "The Good Doctor" is thus one of the most oddly touching personal works in our theater.

Jack Kroll, "What's Up, Doc?" in Newsweek (copyright Newsweek, Inc., 1973; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), December 10, 1973, p. 118.

Alan Ayckbourn has sometimes been described as the British Neil Simon, a comparison pretty unfair to him. (p. 628)

Don't be beguiled by the spritely wisecracks [in The Gingerbread Lady]. This is a notably charmless play. The objection isn't so much that it's second-hand, though you'll probably get a strong sense of déjà-vu from the notion that Evy [the protagonist] can achieve friendship only with people as inadequate as herself, in this case a homosexual and a narcissist. Tennessee Williams has, after all, written many such odes to the camaraderie of failure. But what disturbs me is Simon's plastic-fascia substitute for the compassion and charity that informs the best of William's writing. Bluntly, he sentimentalises Evy, the more so since she's addicted to alcohol. He finds her fascinating and lovable in her boisterous immaturity and, without any show of doubt or anxiety, he foredooms her daughter to become her surrogate mother. If one thinks about it, this really … [is] an ugly, sad business transmogrified, by Simon's mindlessly upbeat ending, into that recurrent American idyll, the parent and child beatifically united in mutual understanding and affection.

The truth is that Polly is an addict, too. Like many characters in American plays and novels these days, she's addicted to specious emotion. So, of course, is Evy, through the 'liberating' medium of alcohol. Indeed, alcohol seems to be, not an end in itself, but a means to the higher reality of rows and throwing glasses and getting black eyes and crying and making up. 'For a moment or two it hurt like hell,' says Evy of the assault itself, 'then I thought, it sure beats indifference.' That's it. The mother may be destructive, the daughter self-destructive, their relationship shallow and suspect if measured by the evidence available; but it gives them a feeling of excitement and involvement, easily confused with love, and it sure beats indifference. Anything beats indifference: the great American heresy, whose wider ill-effects fill the newspapers every day. If Neil Simon had seen the absurdity and self-indulgence of this line of thinking, he might have written a significant play, one in which his main characters, so far from being glibly charming, were seen for what they are, symptoms of a fraught, hipped-up civilisation. As it is, he shares their delusions. He confuses the sudden, sensational response with rooted, burgeoning emotion, the crash of glass with the growth of love. He thinks that to wallow is to feel; and, consequently, his little comedy is a symptom itself. (p. 629)

Benedict Nightingale, in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), November 1, 1974.

Evy [in The Gingerbread Lady], is a former New York night-club singer just back from a 'dry-out' at a health farm for alcoholics but clearly not long for the temperance life. Her career has ended prematurely (she's only forty-three and think of Hildegarde, think of Dietrich), due, in about equal parts, to drink and a ferocious sexual appetite that has led her into untidy relationships with all the wrong kinds of men. These seem to be complementary afflictions, the one perhaps the consequence of the other, but I can see that the more I go on about her general predicament the more likely she is to sound like some Tennessee Williams matron at the end of her strap, whereas [Neil Simon] is a Manhattan gag-man. That, in fact, is the handiest nutshell I can find to enclose the trouble with the play: its unreal juxtaposition of matter and manner, Simon seeming unwilling to put his complete trust in either.

How serious the trouble will seem, though, will depend on how you like the gags, of which there is one about every other line….

Me, I like. Conversation of this order, while I concede that it reproduces only indifferently on the page, delights me on the stage and wins over my foolish heart whatever the disabilities of the play that contains it. In the case of The Gingerbread Lady the disabilities are great and striking, beginning with the whimsical justification of the title (I'm bound to say my spirits sank low when Evy's daughter remembered the gingerbread lady her mother had once given her which crumpled to pieces in the box) and embracing, more seriously, the total incredibility of almost every character on the stage, and, most damagingly, because of this basic artificiality, Simon's failure to make the significant comment on Life and Loneliness for which, among other things, he is striving. Even Evy, the vulnerable moth cocooned in her shell of cynicism and wisecracks, has no credibility…. (p. 574)

Kenneth Hurren, in The Spectator (© 1974 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), November 2, 1974.

To my surprise, my response to "God's Favorite" is one of indignation. I would have expected to content myself with reporting that, despite its having been written as a comedy, it amounts to a grim and often distressing medley of trumped-up, unfunny jokes, ill told and thoroughly unsuited to the action they purport to embody; instead, I find that I feel more strongly about the play than that. I find that it looms before me as a colossal impertinence—a jeer not at religion, though Mr. Simon in his ignorance manages to affront both Judaism and Christianity, but at literature.

The Book of Job is one of the most exquisite poems ever written; its words are always in our ears…. It is also superbly dramatic. The description of Job's many afflictions requires only a few verses; the rest of the poem is a series of debates between Job and three old friends, Job and young Elihu, and Job and God. If our ears (in Hopkins' phrase) are rinsed by the music of the language, our minds are ravished by the give-and-take of the dialogue. And it is this masterpiece that Mr. Simon has decided to retell, in the colloquial New Yorkese that one hears on the stage and on television but that is a parody of true New York street speech. Mr. Simon's Job—Joe Benjamin, in case we should need the hint and in case it would be helpful to have Archibald MacLeish's "J. B." recalled to us—is a vulgar Jewish millionaire who manufactures cardboard boxes and lives on the North Shore of Long Island in a mansion of incomparably sleazy grandeur…. [The] play consists of illustrating the misfortunes that befall him. He has no friends and therefore nobody to debate with, and that may be just as well; little evidence is adduced that he has a mind capable of carrying on a debate. The Book of Job begins, "There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil." Mr. Simon's Job is a repellent humanoid, who suffers and survives; good and evil and the fear of God are far beyond him. (pp. 53-4)

God's messenger [is] a gushing twit from Jackson Heights; that takes care of insulting the homosexuals in our society. The two blacks … are called on to play typical black stage servants, who say "ain't" but carry Gucci shopping bags and are much admired for being willing to pray for Joe Benjamin on their day off; that takes care of insulting the blacks in our society. At one point, Joe criticizes God on the ground that He doesn't know what it is to be human; since the primary tenet of Christianity is that God became human and died in order to redeem man (and, as God, must always have known that He was going to die in such a fashion), that takes care of insulting all the Christians in our society. As for all the Jews in our society, it strikes me that nearly every word spoken in the play insults them, and all the more odiously because nearly every word has been written to secure a laugh. I am sorry to say that the audience often does laugh; I cannot tell you why. (p. 54)

Brendan Gill, in The New Yorker (© 1974 by the New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), December 23, 1974.

Too casually dismissed by some critics as a confectioner of gags, Simon has an intuitive understanding of the comic process that runs far deeper than one-liners. The central aspect of his plays is that the key characters are not funny at all. They never laugh, and they are frequently utterly miserable. Think of The Prisoner of Second Avenue. The hero is a middle-aged executive who has lost his job, and his prospects seem so painfully bleak that he suffers a mental breakdown. Think of The Odd Couple. Here are two men sharing involuntary bachelor quarters after their lives have been shattered by divorce. They are edgy, disconsolate and very close to tears.

What this means is that the burden of laughter rests solely on the audience. Apart from the funny lines, why does the audience laugh? Two reasons suggest themselves. The first is the catharsis of relief—thank God, this hasn't happened to me. The second is to ward off and suppress anxiety—by God, this might happen to me.

T. E. Kalem, "Plagues for Pleasure," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), December 23, 1974, p. 47.

The Eugene O'Neill Theater is owned by Neil Simon, and for the duration of his abominable God's Favorite it might as well be called the O, Neil Simon! Theater. That brings me right away to the crucial "O." When Archibald MacLeish wrote his wretched Job play, he named it J. B., the monicker J. B. suitably designating his wealthy, proper, middlebrow WASP protagonist and play. Now Simon has put back into Job the O (a cipher as well as a letter), and his hero is rich, Jewish, risen from the lower class, and the play lower middlebrow. The profound and poetic biblical masterpiece needs the patience of Job to survive the job being done on it, but survive it will. Even the play will probably survive its mixed notices (mixed for Broadway's darling being equal to lousy for your ordinary author), especially since it is running, as usual, in the theater Simon owns. Do we call in the government's antitrust lawyers, or just call it a case of lowering your overhead in shame?

In any case, Joe Melvin Benjamin, the present incumbent, is a cardboard-box tycoon, an autobiographical touch, perhaps, cardboard having done rather well by our playwright, too. He lives in grand seigneur style in his North Shore mansion with his typically arriviste family; one vapid younger son, Ben, one vacuous daughter, Sara, one black sheep of an elder son, David, and one heavily and solipsistically bejeweled wife, Rose. This enables the pious but also shrewd Joe to make numerous Jewish jokes at the expense of his kin….

Simon works from the gag backward rather than from real people forward. Why should the decent, loving Joe be so sardonic a husband, so neglectful a father?… Of course, hyperbole is a legitimate comic device, but the exaggeration must go in the direction of the probable, not the improbable. (p. 54)

I am not saying that one doesn't emit a laugh, chuckle, or grunt at some of this, but I am saying that it is always devoid of ideas, often in bad taste, and generally an outrage, not against God, but against human intelligence and art. A genuine farce has a point of view, a few thoughts, maybe even a valid social stance. Neil Simon has only gags—good, poor, and embarrassing. Why, for example, is God's messenger a screaming queen…? Only for cheap laughs. Why must a repugnantly discriminatory line like "Regardless of race, religion, Polish, whatever" be actually reprised in the play? Only for cheap laughs. Even MacLeish had some muddled and moth-eaten ideas to convey in J. B.; to Simon, the moving story of Job is just a clothes rack on which to hang his tatterdemalion and often out-of-season gags.

To be sure, turning into Neil Simon is not a solitary vice; it requires the complicity of audiences and reviewers. Thus the mere cataloging of ailments to be visited on Joe elicits laughter from the crowd: "Neuralgia!" Sidney promises, and the audience guffaws; "Tennis elbow!" and there is happy laughter; and then something Simon finds so hilarious that he makes it his first-act curtain line, "The worst one—that, Joe, is hemorrhoids!" Where Job and the bathroom meet is, surely, the locus of quintessential comedy, and the spectators let out a whoop. Yet even they, bless their little souls, let out the loudest and longest laughter when the curtain rose on Act II, revealing Joe's mansion reduced to smouldering rubble….

[The] critics, with few exceptions, do not cry out against the Old Testament's most dramatic book being reduced to this collection of cackles and snickers. Audiences, of course, may find trash to their taste; but the critic's first task is to identify it as such. Then, if people still want to eat it, let them; only let no one pretend it's food. (p. 55)

John Simon, "Bad Things," in New York Magazine (© 1975 by NYM Corp.; reprinted by permission of New York Magazine and John Simon), January 13, 1975, pp. 54-5.

Now that Feydeau has received his accolade as a classic from the Comedie Française and Noël Coward and P G Wodehouse have entered the Pantheon of English letters as major writers—and quite rightly too—the day will not be far off when Neil Simon will be acknowledged as the American Molière. He certainly has the skill as a writer of dialogue, the insight to make him a fine delineator of human character with all its quirks and pathetic heroism, the sharp eye of a sardonic, deadly accurate observer of the social scene and thus, ultimately, of the human condition itself. If Neil Simon is destined to become a classic, The Sunshine Boys will surely rank among his most assiduously studied works….

Neil Simon, as master gag-writer in the New York Jewish idiom has here had an idea which allows him to combine his own personal brand of character comedy with a wealth of material from the rich, but nowadays much neglected, store of old vaudeville humour, much broader, much nearer to the earthy technique of the circus clown, very physical in every sense of the word. (p. 34)

The structure of the plot is simple; and masterly in its simplicity. There are gales of laughter on the way, gag-lines galore, jokes by the dozen and a lot of glorious physical fooling.

But, ultimately, the Molière of Broadway couldn't aspire to becoming a classic if he did not, also, have a lot to say about human nature. The Sunshine Boys is also a study of the obstinacy and childishness of old age, of old men declining to the status of children…; it is also a study of mutual interdependence mixed with the loathing generated by exposure to the minor but progressively irritating foibles of the other partner (nec tecum nec sine te, unable to live with you nor without you; Beckett deals with the same syndrome in Waiting for Godot). Thus, behind the shiny surface of laughter and revelry there are the classic's hidden depths already coming into view…. (p. 35)

Martin Esslin, in Plays and Players (© copyright Hansom Books 1975), July, 1975.