Neil Simon's place in the American Theatre

Sometimes when writing about the productions I see, I get wrapped up in the “review” part to the detriment of the “blogging” part. And the blogging part is the part that it is more interesting to me. By this I mean, I keep thinking, “Oh I need to talk about the actors, and the set, and the direction” that I don’t always have time to just muse on the questions that I am left with about how and why a certain piece of theatre works and doesn’t work. So I’m going to do a more blog post as opposed to a strictly review post and talk about Neil Simon.

These thoughts come about having seen Theatre J’s production of Lost in Yonkers, which is getting positive reviews, amidst the news of the failure of the Broadway repertory productions of Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound.

Many people are wondering about the failure of the Broadway production and how it happened. The Playgoer has a fascinating post about it. Neil Simon used to be a god of the Broadway stage. He is one of the most often produced American playwrights; I think you would be hard pressed to find a community theatre that didn’t produce a Simon play at least once every few years.

Community theatre. There we come to it. There is no denying that currently the place of Simon is squarely set in amateur theatre. But what does that mean? Does it mean the plays are bad? Lacking in sophistication? Or just wholesome and easier not to mess up? Maybe they are so well written that they play themselves making it possible for untrained actors to succeed in them.

I wonder how many people in the professional theatre have the ambivalent Simon feelings that I have. It is easy for my elitist, snobbish side to dismiss his plays as “standard community theatre fare.” But if pressed, I also have to admit that I have a certain affection for Simon plays in spite of? / because of? their status as standard community theatre fare.

I would bet that like me, many of you started in community theatre. That’s where I grew up, and so I cut my teeth on Neil Simon plays. One of my first speaking roles in an adult show was as Laurie in Brighton Beach Memoirs. For my high school drama club I played Olive in The Female Odd Couple, a character who is onstage for all but 5 pages of the script. That was the first time I had had a role that large. In fact, I don’t think I’ve had any other role that large.

I can remember, when I was younger, defended Simon against those who dismissed him as writing the same play over and over, and just being a joke a page writer. I think there is truth in both those statements, but I argued that besides writing jokes, Simon wrote people. I thought his jokes were always rooted in humanity. I objected to the film of Carol Burnett in Plaza Suite because I thought she played the jokes, and not the characters.

And yet. And yet. There was still hesitation on my part as I sat down to see Theatre J’s production of Lost in Yonkers, directed by Jerry Whiddon. Watching this fine production, I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I was watching a community theatre play, being performed by professional actors. The acting really was excellent, especially Holly Twyford’s Bella. Twyford created a remarkable character, carrying the evening, and rising above any sort of preciousness or caricaturization. But because it was Simon, there was this skirting of darkness; you always knew everything would turn out okay, so dramatic tension was lacking, there was no real danger; a lack that I think is inherent in the text.

Was Simon popular in a time when people craved that sort of warm reassurance that he provided? Do people who see theatre now no longer want that? Or at least, people who pay $50-100 for a ticket? Or is the failure of BBM and BB not a question of artistic value, but one of financial mismanagement?

Let’s just think for a moment about another play I saw recently. Angels in America, produced by Forum. A production that I can’t stop praising. What is the difference between the type of play that Angels in America is and the type of play that Brighton Beach Memoirs, or Lost in Yonkers is? Why will a community theatre produce the latter, but not the former (I mean, besides the full frontal male nudity)? Is the difference in the kinds of questions the plays leave us with? Does Angels in America ask harder questions of the audience than Lost in Yonkers? I think so. But are the more difficult questions more valuable?

Okay, in all honesty, I would probably answer YES. But that’s because that’s the kind of theatre-goer I am. Theatre as education, Art with a capital A, and all that. (I warned you that I could be pretentious). But I know that that is not why all people go to the theatre and that theatre as entertainment is a viable medium as well.

So the failure of Brighton Beach Memoirs on Broadway has us asking, where is Neil Simon’s place in the American theatre? I say he has one, all genres of plays do, but where is it? If a Neil Simon revival cannot succeed on Broadway, does that mean his plays have not reached the status of classic? Are they bound to a certain place and time? Is Neil Simon’s place non-professional theatre? If that were true, is that a judgment on the quality of his plays, or merely the genre of his plays?

By the way, Lost in Yonkers runs through November 29. I give it 3 stars.


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