Neil Simon Simon, (Marvin) Neil (Vol. 31) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

(Marvin) Neil Simon 1927–

American dramatist and scriptwriter.

Simon is among the most commercially successful playwrights in the history of American theater. While some critics share Jack Kroll's opinion that a Simon work is an "anthology of gags disguised as a play," audiences have consistently applauded such comedies as Barefoot in the Park (1963), The Odd Couple (1965), The Sunshine Boys (1972), and California Suite (1976). Several of Simon's plays have been made into popular films, and he has also written a number of original screenplays as well as the books for several musicals.

Much of Simon's comedy is a reflection of his own values and experiences. Come Blow Your Horn (1961), for example, is based on the adventures of Neil and his brother, Danny Simon, after they left home for the first time. Chapter Two (1977) deals with the death of Simon's first wife and the agonies and joys of his subsequent courtship and remarriage. In Brighton Beach Memoirs (1983) Simon contemplates his childhood and examines the implications of growing up Jewish in New York City in the 1930s.

Relationships are at the heart of Simon's plays. Many of them revolve around the more turbulent aspects of family life: sibling rivalry, infidelity, divorce, the gender and generation gaps, selfishness, insecurity. According to prevailing critical views, Simon's message is that a relationship need not be destroyed simply because it needs some work. A theme which recurs throughout his plays is the emptiness of a life without commitment. Other subjects examined by Simon within the context of relationships are the benefits of choosing moderation over extremes and the value of compromise (Barefoot in the Park); lack of communication, and expectations versus realities (Last of the Red Hot Lovers, 1969); the decay of modern society and the threat of aging to one's sense of worth (The Prisoner of Second Avenue, 1971); and the problems of old age (The Sunshine Boys).

Most critics believe that Simon's strength lies in his witty, unpretentious approach to everyday incidents in middle-class, urban life, things familiar to the majority of his audiences. While some have admitted to being mystified by the popularity of Simon's humor, which they perceive as simplistic and sometimes directionless, others recognize his ability to touch and hold his audience in play after play. His proponents contend that all his works contain serious themes within a humorous framework; his detractors claim that he buries his serious themes in an overabundance of gags and one-liners. Despite such critical controversy, Simon's works have enjoyed consistent audience appeal.

(See also CLC, Vols. 6, 11; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 7.)

Richard Watts, Jr.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Neil Simon has developed a notable gift for light and amusing comedies that possess a kind of ingratiating charm of their own. His latest play, "The Star-Spangled Girl,"… lacks something of the brilliantly expert artifice that marked "Barefoot in the Park" and "The Odd Couple," but it is brightened by enough of his humorous and often witty inventiveness to provide an engagingly entertaining theatrical evening.

Here he has gone in for the basic situation of two young men and a desirable girl. The men are two youthfully ardent rebels living in penury in a duplex studio apartment in San Francisco, and hopefully trying to get out a protest magazine called Fall-Out. The girl is a scatterbrained Olympic swimmer, who is recovering from her humiliation over having been defeated by a contestant from a desert country. A somewhat elementary patriot, she disapproves of them violently because she is convinced that they are editing a dangerously subversive publication.

But don't think Mr. Simon is deeply preoccupied with issues of a free press and the right of youth to protest. Actually, he takes the approval of both subjects for granted, and, eventually, the girl concurs. What disturbs her at first is that one of the young men is making excessive gestures of romantic love in her direction. Later, she discovers to her alarm that she really is angered because the other youth is showing no signs of a similar attitude toward her....

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Norman Nadel

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[If] one boisterously clever first act could make a hit, then the term would apply to Neil Simon's "The Star-Spangled Girl."… But for a hit you need a strong second act and a zinger of a third act, and Simon hasn't come forth with either.

I don't mean that he lets his audience down entirely; there are laughs intermittently to the finish, and you could do far worse for a light evening out. What we miss is new material after that first act. We want the three characters to change somehow—to develop, deteriorate, reverse themselves, go out of their minds, do something. What they do is essentially what they were doing earlier in the play. We hope for a surprise and nothing very surprising happens. The play runs a predictable course.

Norman Nadel, "'Star-Spangled Girl': Funny—For One Act," in World Journal Tribune, December 22, 1966. Reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. XXVII, No. 20, December 26, 1966–January 1, 1967, p. 196.

Clive Barnes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Neil Simon and Burt Bacharach musical "Promises, Promises" proved to be] the kind of show where you feel more in the mood to send it a congratulatory telegram than write a review….

The hero is not a nice man. In fact he is a kind of mousefink, who decides to sleep his way to the top of business without really lying. The sleeping is done—in a manner of speaking—not by him but by the senior executives in the life insurance firm in which he works. He gives them the key to his apartment and they give him the key to the executive washroom. They find a haven for their girls, and he finds a haven for his aspirations….

Then he falls in love. He falls in love with a girl who is on visiting terms with his apartment but not with him. Guess what happens? You are right the first time.

Mr. Simon's play (and revealingly I find myself thinking of it as much as a play with music as a musical) crackles with wit. The jokes cling supplely to human speech so that they never seem contrived. The whole piece has a sad and wry humanity to it, to which the waspishly accurate wise cracks are only a background.

It is also interesting to see how Mr. Simon wins our sympathy, even our empathy, for his morally derelict hero. In a dramatic trick half as old as time, or at least half as old as Pirandello, he has this dubious young man address the audience direct. The same dubious young man—he must have been great at selling life insurance—takes us so far into his lack of confidence that we feel sorry for him. We even forgive his half-baked way of talking to invisible audiences. Mr. Simon, you see, is a very resourceful man, and persuasive. He wouldn't even have to sell you the Brooklyn Bridge; you would be prepared to rent it.

Clive Barnes, "Simon-Bacharach 'Promises Prom ises' Begins Run at the Shubert," in The New York Times, December 2, 1968, p. 57.

Richard Watts

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Neil Simon's "The Prisoner of Second Avenue"] is full of the humor and intelligence characteristic of this brilliant comic playwright….

Here he is wryly contemplating the misfortune of a Manhattan family. The husband has lost his job, is fighting pollution and his neighbors, and faces the problems of living in a violent city. In fact, he is about to undergo a nervous breakdown. His wise and understanding wife is for a while the pillar of the family, but, after her job has gone and their apartment has been stripped by robbers, she, too, has a breakdown. It's a hard world, and the Edisons are soon aware of it.

This is surely the material for a serious drama, but Mr. Simon has a gift for taking a grave subject and, without losing sight of its basic seriousness, treating it with hearty but sympathetic humor. Because he has a talent for writing a wonderfully funny line, his capacity for insight and compassion is sometimes overlooked and he is thought of as merely a skillful gag writer but this ignores the quality that has made him our most important writer of stage comedy.

The most hilarious part of "The Prisoner of Second Avenue" is the incidental broadcasting of some local television news. It offers a number of hot items. You learn, for instance, that Gov. Rockefeller is in the hospital after being mugged in front of his New York home, that the Police Commissioner has been kidnapped, and a Polish ship has crashed into the Statue of Liberty. This certainly helps to establish the background of Mr. Simon's frenetic Manhattan.

There is a good scene in which the husband's relatives foregather to make idiotic plans to support him after his illness and the flow of humor is quite steady. But there are stretches wherein the comedy is slightly less than in his major vein. There is never a time, however, when it can be forgotten that Neil Simon, even when he is a bit under his peak, can write rings around all the other American dramatists specializing in humor. He demonstrates the fact again here.

Richard Watts, "The New York of Neil Simon," in New York Post, November 12, 1971. Reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. XXXII, No. 19, November 22-28, 1971, p. 191.

Martin Gottfried

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["The Prisoner of Second Avenue"] is a comedy about the breakdown of the system in New York. Superficially, it is similar to Simon's screenplay, "The Out-of-Towners," though the main events in the movie—the rapes, the muggings, the burglaries, the endless strikes—are just the background for the play. (In the play, they are described through the deadly technique of a television news announcer in the dark between scenes.)

The foreground of the play shows the breakdown of the system as it relates to the individual. It is about a 47-year-old man who has lived by the rules and achieved success by the rules, as indicated by the home, the possessions and the way of life demanded by the rules….


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Clifford A. Ridley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

As The Prisoner of Second Avenue begins to unfold, it's clear that Mel Edison … is your prototypical middle-class New Yorker. A 46-year-old account executive who has lived six years in his 14th floor apartment …, he is beset by all the existential woes of the urban condition….

Mel Edison, in brief, is quite literally losing his sanity; and in establishing this condition, Neil Simon has done his best work to date…. If it is not a wholly successful play, it is a wholly admirable one.

In those opening moments, Simon catches the feel of New York existence, the sense of raw nerve ends rubbing crazily against each other, about as well as anyone ever has. If art consists in...

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Jack Kroll

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Neil Simon's relentless fertility is a real esthetic virtue. Clearly he can write a play about anything: it would be fun to set him up officially as America's playwright laureate, perhaps in the theater on Broadway that he owns, where he could create a continuous theatrical obbligato to the events of the day, dashing off a play on Billy Carter, or Lee Marvin's nonmarital problem or even a fast funny musical about the OPEC countries. And on the side he could run a more private service, whipping out personalized plays for ordinary people, say a one-acter on your kid's bar mitzvah or a gag epithalamium on your impending marriage. Something like this is what Simon has done in "They're Playing Our Song," apparently based...

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Douglas Watt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Is Neil Simon going soft? Or is the prodigiously industrious playwright tapped out? One hopes not, but his latest effort, "I Ought to Be in Pictures," an oddly muted comedy …, is, when all is said and done by its three characters, an empty and labored evening. "Shaky confidence" is ascribed to the middle-aged hero by his middle-aged mistress, and it also seems to be Simon's problem here. Teetering on the edge of sentimentality, this play about a father and daughter rediscovering—or discovering, really—one another after a long separation worries its subject all evening long, never daring to be either too funny or too caring.

It has been written and directed … and is acted with painstaking...

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Howard Kissel

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In many ways Neil Simon's "I Ought to Be in Pictures" … is a fantasy play. It presumes that a daughter who was abandoned by her father at the age of 3 can establish a close relationship with him, speak more candidly, manage to convey all the inner warmth daughters who have lived with their fathers all their lives cannot. But the theater, after all, is a place where wishes are fulfilled, and the play is set in Los Angeles, which everyone knows is not a real place—so it is not at all hard to suspend disbelief and accept the play for what it is, the most genuinely touching play Simon has written, one in which laughs stem from character, one in which the master yocksmith is not afraid to trust his emotions.


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Jack Kroll

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Everybody has to make a separate peace with Neil Simon. Mine came when I decided he was really an abstract artist who used gags the way Mondrian used little cells of color—a good Simon play was a formal construct in which the gags were in pleasing tension with one another. The subjects—odd couples, red-hot lovers, sunshine boys—were really only different ways of arranging the Mondrian gag-colors into different patterns. Since having this momentous insight into the Simon gestalt, I can enjoy his plays like any other Simon fan. As a good American. I want to be a Simon fan and this is the way that works for me. At least it did until "I Ought to Be in Pictures" came to Broadway.

This play...

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Douglas Watt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The last time Neil Simon fooled around with Russia, in "The Good Doctor," he engaged himself in an uneasy partnership with Chekhov. Now in "Fools," … he has contented himself with a comic fairy-tale romance that should prove mildly diverting to adults and even more so to schoolchildren.

Once upon a time, according to Simon's fable, a new school-master arrived at a Ukrainian village whose inhabitants had been struck dumb—or rather, stupid—200 years before by a curse which has afflicted all their descendants. Following in the footsteps of countless other schoolteachers, all of whom evidently had the good sense to back off before it was too late, Leon Tolchinsky must deliver the people from the...

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Clive Barnes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

To say that I am at a loss for words is merely to put a cliche where my heart should be.

But I truly am at a loss for words. I probably admire Neil Simon more than most of my colleagues. He is a major playwright, a comedian who survives fashion through the honesty of his comic agony.

But here I am at a loss for words. Fools … is simply terrible. I am not only at a loss for words, I am even at a loss for a cliche. Unfortunately, Simon is here not at a loss for either.

It is a one-joke play. And Simon tells the same joke over and over—and much moreover—again. It is a Russian village. In the Ukraine. Scarcely Russia, but near enough. The village is...

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Frank Rich

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Say what you will about Neil Simon, but there's no denying that he has a real nose for jokes; he doesn't go looking for laughs where they can't be found. So how can one account for "Fools," [an] almost total misfire …? This peculiar endeavor was destined to be fruitless from the moment the playwright dreamed it up. Why the shrewd Mr. Simon plunged ahead anyway is one of the minor mysteries of the Broadway season.

"Fools" is about Kulyenchikov, a mythical Ukrainian village of "long ago" whose residents all live under an evil curse of stupidity. It's a one-gag premise that might make for a dandy 10-minute Sid Caeser-Imogene Coca sketch or a throwaway anecdote in a Mel Brooks-Carl Reiner...

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Jack Kroll

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Fools" is Neil Simon's nineteenth play in twenty years—and his weakest. It's a fable about a Ukrainian village whose inhabitants are under a curse of stupidity. Apparently Simon is trying to say something about how society can wrongly label some of its groups; maybe this is his allegory on race and IQ. If so, he's wrecked an important subject by trying to be a folk artist, forgetting that he is a folk artist in his real plays like "The Odd Couple" and "The Sunshine Boys." "Fools" is so cute it commits cutecide. Wait till next year.

Jack Kroll, "Simple Simon," in Newsweek, Vol. XCVII, No. 16, April 20, 1981, p. 104.

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Clive Barnes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Imagine Eugene O'Neill with a soft streak down his back. Imagine Tennessee Williams in a memory play just slightly cuter than it needed to be.

This is Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs—it is effortlessly his best play yet, it is in its way the best play of the season so far, and it is strangely a slight disappointment.

Simon is one of the significant English-speaking playwrights of the century. His position is as secure as the Statue of Liberty. And Brighton Beach Memoirs … was clearly intended as his run for the final touchdown.

It made it. But in a perverse way it showed Simon's limitations almost as clearly as his virtues. It didn't have the...

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Frank Rich

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In the autobiographical memory play "Brighton Beach Memoirs"] Mr. Simon makes real progress toward an elusive longtime goal: he mixes comedy and drama without, for the most part, either force-feeding the jokes or milking the tears. It's happy news that one of our theater's slickest playwrights is growing beyond the well-worn formulas of his past.

The other likable aspect of Mr. Simon's writing here is its openness and charity of spirit. Far more than most Simon plays, "Brighton Beach Memoirs" deals explicitly with the Jewishness of its people. While one might fear that this development could lead to caricature, it generally does not. Mr. Simon's characters—the seven members of the extended Jerome...

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Walter Kerr

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Whenever a writer gets around to presenting us with his own portrait of the artist as a young man, he invariably does two things. He makes his young man sensitive, very sensitive. A blossom on the vine that will wither and die unless it is promptly given succor. And he makes his young man a victim, a stranger in the household who is not going to be properly nurtured because he is so blatantly misunderstood; he must escape the obtuseness about him at all costs. You know how it goes.

Now,… we have Neil Simon's portrait of the artist as a young man, and Mr. Simon, as generous a man as ever was, has done three things. In "Brighton Beach Memoirs" he has made his 14-year-old hero, whose stage name is...

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John Simon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Brighton Beach Memoirs is Neil Simon's Long Day's Journey Into Night. Simon is the world's richest playwright and he even owns the Eugene O'Neill Theater, but though you can buy the name, you cannot buy the genius. Actually, rather than into one night, the play takes us into two consecutive Wednesday evenings in 1937 (when Simon was ten rather than, as in the play, fifteen), but the pseudo-autobiographical hero is actually called Eugene, and there is an ostensible scraping off of layers of patina to get at the alleged truth; if no one takes dope, there are plenty of dopes around, not least the author, who, like all those comedians wanting to play Hamlet, imagines that he can write a serious play.


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Robert K. Johnson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Simon's mature theater work combines comedy with moments of poignance and insight. Examples abound. In The Odd Couple, Oscar Madison and Felix Ungar, although hilarious to see and listen to, demonstrate how destructive a selfish person can be. Promises, Promises dramatizes how Chuck Baxter and Fran Kubelik, who think they can manipulate people at no cost to themselves, learn that others, more shrewd and calculating, manipulate them and make them pay heavily for their proud schemes. The exchanges between Bill and Hannah Warren in California Suite reveal how easy it is to misjudge who is the strong person and who is the weak, and to fail to perceive that although two people talk at length about one...

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