‘My playwright, telling my stories’

A memorable conversation with Neil Simon

Neil Simon tells stories during a memorial tribute to Cy Coleman at the Majestic Theatre in Manhattan on January 10, 2005. (Paul Hawthorne/Getty Images)

FIRST PERSON 

For years, Neil Simon, who died on August 26 at 91, was the Susan Lucci of dramatists — almost always the bridesmaid of the Tony Awards.

While the establishment largely overlooked him back then — his work received eight Tony nominations for best play between 1963 and 1983 but he won only once — the public didn’t. There were years when Simon had two, three, even four plays on Broadway at the same time, each filling theaters to the brim.

I loved his work, because it was funny and sometimes sad and to me personally it always was meaningful. Neil Simon was my playwright, telling my stories.

There may have been a cat on a hot tin roof, but that roof was in Brooklyn or the Bronx.

I spoke to Simon in the mid-1990s. By then, of course, his brilliance had widely been recognized. Tributes flowed in like a country stream in the springtime, swollen by melting snow. There was a second Tony in 1985 for “Biloxi Blues.” Another in ’91 for “Lost in Yonkers,” which also won the Pulitzer that year. And then the Kennedy Center Honors and a slew of lifetime achievement awards followed in rapid succession.

It took a while, but the critics caught on to what I’d felt for years: Neil Simon was one of the great American playwrights of the 20th century, perhaps even the greatest. Certainly I’ve seen “Death of a Salesman” and “The Crucible,” that “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “A Streetcar Named Desire.” I’m familiar with the works of Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Eugene O’Neill.

But what made Simon’s achievement so remarkable is that he wrote all his plays — more than 30, produced over roughly 35 years — while also turning out screenplays, adaptations of his stage plays (“The Odd Couple,” “The Sunshine Boys”) and originals (“The Good-bye Girl,” “The Heartbreak Kid,” “Max Dugan Returns”).

Finally, in addition to quality, his work was accessible in the way Shakespeare was accessible to the masses 400-plus years ago. While there was almost always a serious subtext to his work — usually about relationships and family and the human condition — it was conveyed through humor — and there was the rub.

You didn’t have to be highbrow to enjoy it.

“Because I was so accessible and popular, I think the critics thought the popularity did not equate with quality,” Simon told me. “Also, I came up so often. I produced a play so often they thought it must be easy, and if it was easy it couldn’t be good.”

I spoke to him around the time he’d published the first volume of his memoirs, “Rewrites,” and so I asked if he’d looked back and had any thoughts about his career.

“I’m beginning to get a better look at it now from where I’m standing,” he said. “But I can’t put myself in a numerical place in a standing of America’s literary figures.”

When I offered him my assessment, he was, of course, pleased. “I’m delighted to hear that,” he said. “What I see is the prolificness of my career, how much I’ve written, and I believe a great deal of it has quality. I’ve looked back at a chronological list of the things I’ve done from the very beginning, from the time I was 19 years old, until now, 69, so that’s 50 years of writing. I see that I have done a great deal.

“What’s happening now is that young people are more anxious to meet me and see me. I’ve become legendary — but only because no one is around doing it now. I mean consistently writing plays. There are playwrights who do a play now and then. But I did a play almost every year.”

His productivity and longevity were recurring topics with Simon, as if the awards had been given out only because he survived. He also recognized that the quality of his work had improved, and that was shaped by two factors.

To begin with, his grasp of the art of playwriting became firmer, he said. But also his powers of observation had improved. “As you become older,” he told me, “you become more sensitive to things, more aware of the dark side of people’s lives. You want to do more than just trying to entertain them.”

The turning point came with “Chapter Two,” about how Simon coped with the death of his wife, Joan, from cancer, and the early days of his marriage to his second wife, Marsha Mason. Simon already had appeared as a character in his plays. It was Neil and his brother, Danny, at the center of “Come Blow Your Horn.” Neil and Joan, freshly married, at the heart of “Barefoot in the Park.” While Simon had moved progressively to more serious works, “Chapter Two” was the first time he put his own guts on the table.

But it was not the last time.

In his autobiographical trilogy, “Brighton Beach Memoirs” (1983), “Biloxi Blues” (1984), and “Broadway Bound” (1986), Simon really began to tackle his demons, a function of growing up in a largely dysfunctional family. He followed that with what he considered his masterpiece, “Lost in Yonkers.”

I ask Simon if those demons ever go away, if writing exorcises them. “They don’t go away,” he responded. But “they dissipate, and they become less important in your life.”

Then I mention a moment in “Broadway Bound” when Linda Lavin (playing Eugene Jerome’s — i.e. Neil’s — mom, Kate) wipes the dust off a dining room table and then wrings her hands. That’s exactly what my mother did. So our conversation naturally veers into his Jewish identity.

“I go to synagogue occasionally, when someone invites me,” he says. “And then,” he adds almost wistfully, “I get a sense of my Judaism again, because I know I’m with people I belong to.

“My parents practiced their traditions of the High Holidays and Passover, and when I got married to Joan our family practiced the traditions as well. So I was always part of that.

“I wasn’t agnostic at all. I knew I was a Jew. I was proud to be Jew. But it was hard for me to believe in a particular god.

“I had so many questions in Hebrew school that were not answered for me.” For example, he said, “we are reading the Old Testament about Cain and Abel, and it said they were two sons of Adam and Eve. And when Cain slew Abel, he was sent out into the world and the people shunned him. I raise my hand and asked ‘what people?’”

It is quintessential Simon, funny but with a subtext of truth and poignancy.

“My early plays probably had Jewish people in them, but I never said they were, because it wasn’t important. I never thought of Oscar and Felix as being Jewish.”

Still, he recognizes that much of his sense of humor “comes from being Jewish, and it comes from being a New Yorker. I know that much is true.”

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