Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Neil Simon

Is it obvious or hyperbole to say that Neil Simon is some kind of genius? Of course, we all know that back in the 60s and 70s he seemed to be able to write one uproariously funny play after another. I still laugh out loud at the scene in Barefoot in the Park when the newlywed Paul climbs the seemingly endless flights of stairs for the first time to the apartment his wife Corie has picked out and with almost no breath left inquires: "Did you know it's six flights?" To which his wife Corie answers, "It isn't, it's five," because the outside stoop doesn't count as a flight. Still barely able to catch his breath, Paul wheezes: "It may look like a stoop, but it climbs like a flight." That kind of line, which seems so simple to compose, but is, of course, a comic rarity, spewed liberally for almost 15 years from Simon's fertile pen in such plays as The Odd Couple, Plaza Suite, The Prisoner of Second Avenue, Sunshine Boys, The Last of the Red Hot Loves, and many others.

Sometime in the mid-1970s, though, he began to lose his touch, and for the first time in his professional career as a playwright lost the ability to attract large audiences. He recently related that he was on the verge of giving up on writing plays altogether in the early 80s, when he discovered a partial draft of an autobiographical play he had been working on some years earlier. He liked what he read and went on to complete Brighton Beach Memoirs, which was not only a hit, but also perhaps his first work that elicited from audiences as many tears as laughs. This led to a series of plays based on his childhood and early adulthood, including Biloxi Blues, Lost in Yonkers, and Broadway Bound, all of which were products of a maturing theatrical master, increasingly regarded as equally effective with drama as with comedy.

We saw Brighton Beach Memoirs the other night, and it struck me as not only flawlessly acted and produced, but as a kind of perfect capturing of one representative family's life in that hard and precarious year of 1937. It is, in part, the hilarious coming of age story of the fourteen-year-old Eugene Morris Jerome, but the bigger context is one of a large extended family just scraping by economically, the perils that can result from losing any source of steady income, and, most of all, the fear of a world war that cannot be stopped and the urgency of finding a safe haven for Jewish family members escaping from Europe before it's too late. All of that is there, but it is never done in a heavy handed way, and Simon's gift for humor holds the horror in balance, even as we know that it is only a matter of time before boys like Eugene will be obliged to risk their lives while fighting for their country. Our laughing is mixed with bitterness and loss and leavened with the hope and strength that families sometimes supply.

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