Simon, Neil 1927–
Simon, Neil 1927–
(Marvin Neil Simon)
PERSONAL: Born July 4, 1927, in Bronx, NY; son of Irving (a garment salesman) and Mamie Simon; married Joan Baim (a dancer), September 30, 1953 (died, 1973); married Marsha Mason (an actress), 1973 (di-vorced, 1982); married Diana Lander, 1987 (divorced, 1989; remarried, 1990; divorced, 1998); married Elaine Joyce, 1999; children: (first marriage) Ellen, Nancy; (third marriage) Bryn (adopted daughter). Education: Attended New York University, 1946, and University of Denver.
ADDRESSES: Office—c/o Gary N. Da Silva, 111 North Sepulveda Blvd., Ste. 250, Manhattan Beach, CA 90266-6850.
CAREER: Playwright. Warner Brothers, Inc., New York, NY, mail room clerk, 1946; Columbia Broadcasting System, Inc. (CBS), New York, NY, comedy writer for Goodman Ace, late 1940s; comedy writer for Robert W. Lewis The Little Show, radio, late 1940s; comedy writer for The Phil Silvers Arrow Show, National Broadcasting Co., Inc. (NBC-TV), 1948, The Tallulah Bankhead Show, NBC-TV, 1951, Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows, NBC-TV, 1956–57, The Phil Silvers Show, CBS-TV, 1958–59, The Garry Moore Show, CBS-TV, 1959–60, and The Jackie Gleason Show and The Red Buttons Show, both CBS-TV, and for television specials. Producer of motion pictures, including Only When I Laugh, Columbia, 1981, I Ought to Be in Pictures, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1982, and Max Dugan Returns, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1983. Appearances on television programs, including 52nd Annual Academy Awards, presenter, 1980; Caesar's Writers, as himself, Public Broadcasting Service, 1996; Pitch, as himself, Hollywood or Bust Productions, 1997; Sid Caesar Collection, as himself, Creative Light Entertainment, 2000–01. Military service: U.S. Army Air Force Reserve; sports editor of Rev-Meter, the base newspaper at Lowry Field, CO, 1946.
MEMBER: Dramatists Guild, Writers Guild of America.
AWARDS, HONORS: Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Award (Emmy), 1957, for Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows, and 1959, for The Phil Silvers Show; Antoinette Perry Award (Tony) nomination, 1963, for Little Me, 1964, for best play for The Odd Couple, 1965, for Barefoot in the Park, 1966, for Sweet Charity, 1968, for Plaza Suite, 1969, for Promises, Promises, 1970, for Last of the Red Hot Lovers, 1972, for The Prisoner of Second Avenue, 1973, for The Sunshine Boys, 1978, for book of a musical for They're Playing Our Song, 1979, for Chapter Two, and 1987, for Broadway Bound; Tony Award for best playwright, 1965, for The Odd Couple, for best drama, 1985, for Biloxi Blues, and best play, 1991, for Lost in Yonkers; special Tony Award for overall contributions to the theater, 1975; Writers Guild Award nomination, 1967, for Barefoot in the Park; Evening Standard Drama Award, 1967, for Sweet Charity; Sam S. Shubert Foundation Award, 1968; Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Award (Oscar) nomination, 1968, for The Odd Couple, and 1978, for California Suite; Writers Guild Award, 1969, for The Odd Couple, 1970, for Last of the Red Hot Lovers, 1971, for The Out-of-Towners, and 1972, for The Trouble with People; named Entertainer of the Year, Cue magazine, 1972; Oscar nomination and Golden Globe Award nomination, 1975, for The Sunshine Boys, and 1977, for The Goodbye Girl; Writers Guild Award, 1975; Hollywood Foreign Press Association award, 1978, for The Goodbye Girl; Laurel Award, Writers Guild of America, 1979; L.H.D., Hofstra University, 1981; New York Drama Critics Circle Award, 1983, for Brighton Beach Memoirs; elected to the Theater Hall of Fame, Uris Theater, 1983; Lifetime Creative Achievement Award, American Comedy Awards, George Schlatter Productions, 1989; a Neil Simon tribute show was held at the Shubert Theatre, March 1, 1987; Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and Drama Desk Award, both 1991, both for Lost in Yonkers; Emmy nomination for Outstanding Made for Television Movie, 2001, for Laughter on the 23rd Floor; Neil Simon Endowment for the Dramatic Arts was established at Duke University; Apple Award, Nederlander Company and Wayne State University, 2001.
(With William Friedberg) Adventures of Marco Polo: A Musical Fantasy (music by Clay Warnick and Mel Pahl), Samuel French (New York, NY), 1959.
(Adaptor, with William Friedberg) Heidi (based on the novel by Johanna Spyri; music by Warnick), Samuel French (New York, NY), 1959.
(With brother, Danny Simon) Come Blow Your Horn (also see below; first produced in New Hope, PA, at the Bucks County Playhouse, August, 1960; produced on Broadway at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, February 22, 1961; produced on London's West End at the Prince of Wales Theatre, February 17, 1962), Samuel French (New York, NY), 1961.
Barefoot in the Park (also see below; first produced, under title Nobody Loves Me, in New Hope, PA, at the Bucks County Playhouse, 1962; produced on Broadway at the Biltmore Theatre, October 23, 1963; produced on the West End, 1965), Random House (New York, NY), 1964.
The Odd Couple (also see below; first produced on Broadway at the Plymouth Theatre, March 10, 1965; produced on the West End at the Queen's Theatre, October 12, 1966; revised version first produced in Los Angeles at the Ahmanson Theatre, April 6, 1985; produced on Broadway at the Broadhurst Theatre, June, 1985; produced on Broadway at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 2005), Random House (New York, NY), 1966.
Sweet Charity (also see below; musical; based on the screenplay The Nights of Cabiria by Federico Fellini; music and lyrics by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields; first produced on Broadway at the Palace Theatre, January 29, 1966; produced on the West End at the Prince of Wales Theatre, October 11, 1967), Random House (New York, NY), 1966.
The Star-Spangled Girl (also see below; first produced on Broadway at the Plymouth Theatre, December 21, 1966), Random House (New York, NY), 1967.
Plaza Suite (also see below; three one-acts entitled Visitor from Hollywood, Visitor from Mamaroneck, and Visitor from Forest Hills; first produced on Broadway at the Plymouth Theatre, February 14, 1968; produced on the West End at the Lyric Theatre, February 18, 1969), Random House (New York, NY), 1969.
Promises, Promises (also see below; musical; based on the screenplay The Apartment by Billy Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond; music by Burt Bacharach; lyrics by Hal David; first produced on Broadway at the Shubert Theatre, December 1, 1968; produced on the West End at the Prince of Wales Theatre, October 2, 1969), Random House (New York, NY), 1969.
Last of the Red Hot Lovers (also see below; three acts; first produced in New Haven, CT, at the Shubert Theatre, November 26, 1969; produced on Broadway at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, December 28, 1969; produced in London, 1979), Random House (New York, NY), 1970.
The Gingerbread Lady (also see below; first produced in New Haven, CT, at the Shubert Theatre, November 4, 1970; produced on Broadway at the Plymouth Theatre, December 13, 1970; produced in London, 1974), Random House (New York, NY), 1971.
The Prisoner of Second Avenue (also see below; first produced in New Haven, CT, at the Shubert Theatre, October 12, 1971; produced on Broadway at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, November 11, 1971; reprised on London's West End, 1999), Random House (New York, NY), 1972.
The Sunshine Boys (also see below; first produced in New Haven, CT, at the Shubert Theatre, November 21, 1972; produced on Broadway at the Broadhurst Theatre, December 20, 1972; produced in London, 1975), Random House (New York, NY), 1973.
The Good Doctor (also see below; musical; adapted from stories by Anton Chekhov; music by Peter Link; lyrics by Simon; first produced on Broadway at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, November 27, 1973), Random House (New York, NY), 1974.
God's Favorite (also see below; first produced on Broadway at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, December 11, 1974), Random House (New York, NY), 1975.
California Suite (also see below; first produced in Los Angeles, CA, April, 1976; produced on Broadway at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, June 30, 1976; produced in London, 1976), Random House (New York, NY), 1977.
Chapter Two (also see below; first produced in Los Angeles, CA, 1977; produced on Broadway at the Imperial Theatre, December 4, 1977; produced in London, 1981), Random House (New York, NY), 1979.
They're Playing Our Song (also see below; musical; music by Marvin Hamlisch; lyrics by Carol Bayer Sager; first produced in Los Angeles, CA, 1978; produced on Broadway at the Imperial Theatre, February 11, 1979; produced in London, 1980), Random House (New York, NY), 1980.
I Ought to Be in Pictures (also see below; first produced in Los Angeles, CA, 1980; produced on Broadway at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, April 3, 1980; produced in London at the Offstage Downstairs, December, 1986), Random House (New York, NY), 1981.
Fools (also see below; first produced on Broadway at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, April, 1981), Random House (New York, NY), 1982.
Brighton Beach Memoirs (also see below; first produced in Los Angeles, CA, at the Ahmanson Theatre, December, 1982; produced on Broadway at the Alvin Theatre, March 27, 1983), Random House (New York, NY), 1984.
Biloxi Blues (also see below; first produced in Los Angeles, CA, at the Ahmanson Theatre, December, 1984; produced on Broadway at the Neil Simon Theatre, March, 1985), Random House (New York, NY), 1986.
Broadway Bound (also see below; first produced at Duke University, October, 1986; produced on Broadway at the Broadhurst Theatre, December, 1986), Random House (New York, NY), 1987.
Rumors (first produced in San Diego, CA, at the Old Globe Theater in 1988; produced on Broadway at the Broadhurst Theatre, November 17, 1988), Random House (New York, NY), 1990.
Lost in Yonkers (first produced on Broadway at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, 1991), Plume (New York, NY), 1991.
Jake's Women (produced on Broadway at the Neil Simon Theatre, March 24, 1992), Samuel French (New York, NY), 1993, Random House (New York, NY), 1994.
Laughter on the 23rd Floor (produced on Broadway at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, November 22, 1993; produced on the West End, 1996), Random House (New York, NY), 1995.
London Suite (produced Off-Broadway at the Union Square Theatre, April 9, 1995), Samuel French (New York, NY), 1996.
The Comedy of Neil Simon (contains Come Blow Your Horn, Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, The Star-Spangled Girl, Promises, Promises, Plaza Suite, and Last of the Red Hot Lovers), Random House (New York, NY), 1971, published as The Collected Plays of Neil Simon, Volume 1, New American Library (New York, NY), 1986.
The Collected Plays of Neil Simon, Volume 2 (contains The Sunshine Boys, Little Me [also see below], The Gingerbread Lady, The Prisoner of Second Avenue, The Good Doctor, God's Favorite, California Suite, and Chapter Two), Random House (New York, NY), 1979.
The Collected Plays of Neil Simon, Volume 3 (contains Sweet Charity, They're Playing Our Song, I Ought to Be in Pictures, Fools, The Odd Couple—Female Version, Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, and Broadway Bound), Random House (New York, NY), 1992.
1952–53(Contributor of sketches) Tamiment Revue, first produced in Tamiment, PA.
(Contributor of sketches, with Danny Simon) Catch a Star! (musical revue), first produced on Broadway at the Plymouth Theatre, November 6, 1955.
(Contributor of sketches, with Danny Simon) New Faces of 1956, first produced on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, June 14, 1956.
(Adaptor) Little Me (musical; based on the novel by Patrick Dennis), music by Coleman, first produced on Broadway at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, November 17, 1962, produced on the West End at the Cambridge Theatre, November 18, 1964, revised version produced in New York, 1981.
(Contributor of sketch) Broadway Revue (satirical musical revue), first produced in New York City at the Karmit Bloomgarden Theatre, November, 1968.
(Editor of book for musical) Seesaw (based on Two for the Seesaw by William Gibson), first produced on Broadway, March 18, 1973.
The Goodbye Girl (musical; based on Simon's screenplay), lyrics by David Zippel, music by Marvin Hamlisch, first produced on Broadway at the Marquis Theatre, March 4, 1993.
Forty-five Seconds from Broadway, produced on Broadway at the Richard Rogers Theatre, November 11, 2001.
The Dinner Party, produced at the Music Box Theatre, New York, NY, October 23, 2000.
Oscar and Felix: A New Look at the Odd Couple, produced in New York, NY, 2002.
Rose and Walsh, produced in Los Angeles, CA, at the Geffen Playhouse, January 28-February 9, 2003, also produced as Rose's Dilemma, in New York, NY, at the Manhattan Theatre Club, December 18-February 1, 2004.
Come Blow Your Horn (based on Simon's play of the same title), Paramount, 1963.
(With Cesare Zavattini) After the Fox (also known as Caccia alla volpe), United Artists, 1966.
Barefoot in the Park (based on Simon's play of the same title), Paramount, 1967.
The Odd Couple (based on Simon's play of the same title), Paramount, 1968.
The Out-of-Towners, Paramount, 1970.
Plaza Suite (based on Simon's play of the same title), Paramount, 1971.
(With Arnold Margolin and Jim Parker) Star Spangled Girl, Paramount, 1971.
Last of the Red Hot Lovers (based on Simon's play of the same title), Paramount, 1972.
The Heartbreak Kid (based on short story by Bruce Jay Friedman), Twentieth Century-Fox, 1972.
The Prisoner of Second Avenue (based on Simon's play of the same title), Warner Bros., 1975.
The Sunshine Boys (based on Simon's play of the same title), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1975.
Murder by Death, Columbia, 1976.
The Goodbye Girl, Warner Bros., 1977.
The Cheap Detective, Columbia, 1978.
California Suite (based on Simon's play of the same title), Columbia, 1978.
Chapter Two (based on Simon's play of the same title), Columbia, 1979.
Seems Like Old Times, Columbia, 1980.
Only When I Laugh (based on Simon's play The Gingerbread Lady), Columbia, 1981.
I Ought to Be in Pictures (based on Simon's play of the same title), Twentieth Century-Fox, 1982.
Max Dugan Returns, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1983.
(With Edward Weinberger and Stan Daniels) The Lonely Guy (based on the novel The Lonely Guy's Book of Life, by Bruce Jay Friedman), Universal, 1984.
The Slugger's Wife, Columbia, 1985.
Brighton Beach Memoirs (based on Simon's play of the same title), Universal, 1986.
Biloxi Blues (based on Simon's play of the same title), Universal, 1988.
The Marrying Man, Hollywood Pictures, 1991.
Lost in Yonkers (based on Simon's play of the same title), Columbia, 1993, published as Neil Simon's Lost in Yonkers: The Illustrated Screenplay of the Film, Newmarket Press (New York, NY), 1993.
Neil Simon's The Odd Couple II, Paramount Pictures, 1998.
The Odd Couple I and II: The Original Screen Plays, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2000.
The Trouble with People, NBC-TV, 1972.
Plaza Suite (based on Simon's play of the same title), ABC-TV, 1987.
Broadway Bound (based on Simon's play of the same title), ABC-TV, 1992.
Jake's Women (based on Simon's play of the same title), CBS-TV, 1996.
London Suite (based on Simon's play of the same title), NBC-TV, 1996.
The Sunshine Boys (based on Simon's play of the same title), Hallmark Entertainment, 1997.
Laughter on the 23rd Floor (based on Simon's play of the same title), Paramount Television/Showtime Network, 2001.
The Goodbye Girl (based on Simon's play of the same title), Turner Network Television, 2004.
Also coauthor of teleplay Happy Endings, 1975.
Rewrites: A Memoir (autobiography), Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1996.
(Contributor) Hold Fast Your Dreams, edited by Carrie Boyko and Kimberly Colen, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1996.
Neil Simon Monologues: Speeches from the Works of America's Foremost Playwright, edited by Roger Karshner, Dramaline (Rancho Mirage, CA), 1996.
Neil Simon's Proposals, Samuel French (New York, NY), 1998.
The Play Goes On: A Memoir, Simon & Schuster, 1999.
Neil Simon Scenes: Scenes from the Works of America's Foremost Playwright, edited by Roger Karshner, Dramaline (Rancho Mirage, CA), 2000.
ADAPTATIONS: Come Blow Your Horn was filmed by Paramount in 1963; Sweet Charity was filmed by Universal in 1969; The Star-Spangled Girl was filmed by Paramount in 1971; Barefoot in the Park was adapted as a television series by American Broadcasting Co. (ABC) in 1970; The Odd Couple was adapted as a television series by ABC in 1970–75, as another television series, The Oddball Couple, 1975, as The New Odd Couple, ABC, in 1982–83, and a television movie, The Odd Couple: Together Again (also known as The Odd Couple: One More Time), CBS, 1993; Laughter on the 23rd Floor was adapted as a television movie.
SIDELIGHTS: Playwright Neil Simon "can look back on an incredibly productive career that shows no signs of faltering despite the usual diminution of energy brought about by advancing years," according to Jonathan Yardley, writing in the Washington Post. Since 1959 Simon's comedies have dominated the Broadway stage and have been adapted as popular Hollywood films as well. As David Richards explained in the Washington Post, Simon's comedies have run "forever on Broadway and made him pots of money, after which they were turned into movies that made him pots more." Such plays as Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, Plaza Suite, The Prisoner of Second Avenue, The Sunshine Boys, and the autobiographical trilogy of Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, and Broadway Bound have ensured Simon a position as "one of America's most popular and prolific playwrights" and "the most formidable comedy writer in American theatre," as Sheila Ennis Geitner reported in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. Yardley similarly noted that Simon's productions "have worked their way into the heart of twentiethth-century American culture."
Even though Simon's plays are often praised for their humor, in later years they have grown more serious, confronting issues of importance, the humor developing naturally from the characters and their interactions. With these plays, Simon has gained a new respect for his own work. "Simon's mature theatre work," Robert K. Johnson wrote in Neil Simon, "combines comedy with moments of poignance and insight." Speaking of the Tony Award-winning Biloxi Blues, Frank Rich of the New York Times argued that Simon "at last begins to examine himself honestly, without compromises, and the result is his most persuasively serious effort to date."
Simon began his career as a radio writer in the 1940s. He and his brother Danny Simon worked as a team, writing comedy sketches for radio personality Goodman Ace. In the 1950s the pair graduated to television, working with such popular entertainers as Sid Caesar, Phil Silvers, and Jackie Gleason, and with such other writers as Mel Brooks and Woody Allen. But after some ten years in the business, Simon wanted out. "I hated the idea of working in television and having conferences with network executives and advertising executives who told you what audiences wanted and in what region they wanted it," Simon told the New York Times Magazine. With the success of his play Come Blow Your Horn, written with Danny, Simon was finally able to leave television and devote his efforts to the stage. He has never regretted the move. As he told Richards, "I would rather spend my nights writing for an audience of 1,000 than an audience of fourteen million."
Since the initial success of Come Blow Your Horn, which ran for eighty-four weeks on Broadway, Simon has seldom had a disappointing reception to his work. His second play, Barefoot in the Park, ran for over 1,500 performances on Broadway; The Odd Couple for over 900 performances; Plaza Suite for over 1,000 performances; and Last of the Red Hot Lovers and The Prisoner of Second Avenue ran for over 700 performances each. Richards noted that "all but a handful of Simon's plays" have made a profit, while Simon is reputedly "the richest playwright alive and arguably the richest ever in the history of the theater." "Most of Simon's plays," Richard Christiansen remarked in the Chicago Tribune, "have been good box office. [And] he still holds the record for having the most plays running simultaneously on Broadway (four)."
Although Simon's plays have dealt with a wide range of situations and characters, certain elements recur in all of them. The setting is usually Simon's hometown of New York, the characters are often native New Yorkers, and their problems are similar to those experienced by Simon himself. Come Blow Your Horn, for instance, is a thinly disguised version of Simon and brother Danny coming of age and leaving home, The Odd Couple stems from Danny's experience of sharing an apartment with a divorced friend, and Chapter Two concerns Simon's recovery following the death of his first wife in 1973. Simon explained to New York Times contributor Leslie Bennetts about how he has incorporated events from his own life into his plays: "The theme is me, my outlook on life. If you spread [my career] out like a map, you can chart my emotional life: some of the growth, some of the changes, some of the side trips."
Critics often point out that Simon has an admirable ability to accurately depict American domestic life. Writing in the Humanist, Julius Novick claimed that Simon immerses "himself in the minutiae of modern American upper-middle-class existence, which no one conveys with more authority—or, anyhow, more assiduity—than he."
Simon's plays usually focus on the members of one family or on a small group of friends, and often concern the more disruptive problems of modern life: divorce, urban crime and congestion, conflicts between children and parents, infidelity. These conflicts occur in a closed environment: an apartment or the family home. "Many of my plays [deal] with people being dumped together in a confined space, physically and emotionally," Bennetts quoted Simon as explaining. He uses this confined space with expert skill. David Kehr of the Chicago Tribune noted that Simon has "a kind of genius—a genius for stagecraft, the art of getting characters on and off a stage as unobtrusively as possible and of finding plausible, natural excuses for restricting a whole range of dramatic action to the confines of a single set. As a master of logistics, Simon is without peer."
Although Simon's plays are often concerned with domestic troubles, they nonetheless find humor in these painful situations. In his critique of The Odd Couple for the Saturday Review, Henry Hewes explained that Simon "makes comic cadenzas out of our bleats of agony." Simon's characters, Hewes maintained, "are blissfully unhappy but the pain of what they do to each other and to themselves is exploded into fierce humor."
In her Neil Simon: A Critical Study, Edythe M. McGovern argued that in his early plays Simon also advocated compromise and moderation. In Barefoot in the Park, for instance, a newly married couple are opposites: she is spontaneous; he is overly careful. Their different outlooks on life threaten to pull them apart. But by play's end, they have moderated their behavior so that they can live comfortably together. "Simon," McGovern wrote, "has made a point here regarding the desirability of following a middle course in order to live pleasurably without boredom, but with a sensible regard for responsibility."
The same theme is returned to in The Odd Couple, in which two divorced male friends share an apartment, only to find that the disagreeable personality traits which led them to get divorces also make their living together impossible. They are "two rather nice human beings who will never be able to communicate with one another simply because each man has a completely different way of viewing the world and is committed to what amounts to an extreme position with no intention of compromise," as McGovern explained. Their unyielding attitudes lead to an angry confrontation and eventual break. In showing the consequences of their inability to compromise, Simon again argues for "a middle course rather than an extremely polarized position," McGovern further commented. Speaking of Simon's handling of such important themes in his comedies, McGovern claimed that "to Neil Simon,… the comic form provides a means to present serious subjects so that audiences may laugh to avoid weeping."
But not all critics have been kind to Simon. Some believe his long string of hit comedies are filled with funny one-liners and little else. Jack Kroll of Newsweek referred to Simon's image as "Gagman Laureate." Writing in his Uneasy Stages: A Chronicle of the New York Theater, 1963–73, John Simon felt that "the basic unit of [Simon's] playmaking is the joke. Not the word, the idea, the character, or even the situation, but the gag. It kills him if here and there a monosyllable resists funnying up, if now and then someone has to make a move that won't fracture the audience."
For many years, Simon was taken less than seriously even by critics who enjoyed his work. Geitner remarked that Simon's reputation as "the most formidable comedy writer in American theatre … prevented his being considered a serious dramatist by many critics."
Since the autobiographical trilogy Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, and Broadway Bound in the 1980s, however, critical opinion about Simon's work has improved enormously. Speaking of the critical reception of Brighton Beach Memoirs, Richards explained that "the critics, who have sometimes begrudged the playwright his ability to coin more funny lines per minute than seems humanly possible, have now decided that he has a very warm heart." And Biloxi Blues, his twenty-first Broadway play, won Simon in 1985 his first Tony Award for best drama. (He had twenty years earlier won the Tony for best playwright.)
The trilogy is based on Simon's own childhood and youth in the 1930s and 1940s, although he told Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times: "I hate to call it autobiographical, because things didn't necessarily happen, or happen to me. It's an Impressionist painting of that era and that place. But there are bits and pieces of me in several of the characters." Broadway Bound is close enough to the truth, however, for Time critic William A. Henry III to report that both Simon "and his brother Danny have wept openly while watching it in performance."
Brighton Beach Memoirs is set in the Brooklyn of 1937 and tells of a Jewish family, the Jeromes, and their financial troubles during the Depression. When an aunt loses her job, she and her son move in with the Jeromes, and the family, now seven people in a cramped house, must survive their financial crisis and the aggravatingly close proximity to each other. Rich explained that "Simon uses the family's miseries to raise such enduring issues as sibling resentments, guilt-ridden parent-child relationships and the hunger for dignity in a poverty-stricken world." Simon's alter ego is the family's teenage son, Eugene, who comments on his family's problems in asides to the audience. Eugene, Richards commented, "serves as the play's narrator and [his] cockeyed slant on the family's tribulations keeps the play in comic perspective."
The play earned Simon some of the best reviews of his career. Brown wrote that Brighton Beach Memoirs has "plenty of laughs," but "Simon avoids the glib, tenderly probing the often-awkward moments where confused emotions cause unconscious hurts…. Simon's at his best, finding the natural wit, wisecracking and hyperbole in the words and wisdom of everyday people."
Eugene Jerome joins the Army in Biloxi Blues, the second play of the trilogy. The story follows Eugene through his ten weeks of basic training in Biloxi, Mississippi. During this training, one recruit is jailed for his homosexuality; one comes into constant conflict with his superior officers; and Eugene faces anti-Semitic insults from another soldier. Eugene, an aspiring writer, records these events faithfully in his diary, learning to examine his life and the lives of his friends honestly, and developing personal values in the process. Eugene's dream of becoming a writer is greatly furthered when he is assigned to work on an Army newspaper instead of being sent to the front, a fortunate turn of events that nonetheless makes him feel guilty.
Eugene's Army career is virtually identical to Simon's own stint in the military, and this self-examination was well received by the critics, who found that Simon realistically presents life in the Army. "For all the familiarity of its set pieces," Dan Sullivan of the Los Angeles Times said of Biloxi Blues, "it feels like life, not 'Go-mer Pyle.'" Critics have also been impressed with how Simon subordinates the play's humor to its more serious concerns. Richards claimed that Biloxi Blues "may be the most touching play ever written about the rigors of basic training."
The story of Eugene Jerome continues in Broadway Bound, in which Eugene and his older brother, Stan, become comedy writers, leave home, and take jobs with a major network radio show. The breakup of their parents' marriage, the family's resistance to their new profession, and Eugene's realization that life does not contain the happy endings found in art form the basis of the plot. Danny Simon told Nina Darnton in the New York Times that Broadway Bound "is the closest in accuracy" of the three autobiographical plays.
Eugene's mother is the primary character in Broadway Bound. "Through much of the comedy," Christiansen noted, "she has been the needling, nagging Jewish mother who gets the old, familiar laughs. But by the end of the play, with her personal life a shambles, she has turned into a creature of great sorrow and weariness, as well." After recounting to Eugene the story of how she once danced with actor George Raft—an exhilarating and romantic moment she still recalls fondly—Eugene asks his mother to dance with him. "In this," Kroll observed, "perhaps the most delicate and highly charged moment in any Simon play, we feel the waste of a woman's unlived life and the shock of a young man who feels in his arms the repressed rhythm of that life." Eugene "sees that behind his mother's depressed exterior," Mel Gussow commented in the New York Times, "is the heart of a once vibrant and hopeful young woman; she is someone who has been defeated by the limits she has imposed on her life." Although he saw some flaws in Broadway Bound, Rich admitted that it "contains some of its author's most accomplished writing to date—passages that dramatize the timeless, unresolvable bloodlettings of familial existence as well as the humorous conflicts one expects."
Simon finally received critical recognition of his status as one of America's major playwrights in 1991, when his play Lost in Yonkers won both a Pulitzer Prize for drama and a Tony Award for best drama. The play, which tells the story of a dysfunctional Jewish-American family during World War II, is "closer to pure surrealism than anything Mr. Simon has hitherto produced," wrote David Richards in the New York Times, "and take[s] him several bold steps beyond the autobiographical traumas he recorded in Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound." "No longer content to dramatize divisive arguments around the family table," the critic continued, "he has pulled the family itself out of shape and turned it into a grotesque version of itself. These characters are not oddballs, they're deeply disturbed creatures. Were it not for his ready wit and his appreciation for life's incongruities, Lost in Yonkers could pass for a nightmare."
Lost in Yonkers is the story of how Eddie Kurnitz is forced by his economic circumstances to leave his two young sons, Arty and Jay, in the care of his severe, overbearing German-born Jewish mother. Grandma Kurnitz has tried to encourage self-reliance among her children by exercising strict discipline in her home, but she has only succeeded in scarring them emotionally. She continues to exert her authority over her gangster son Louie and her mentally impaired daughter Bella. "The two children," Richards declared in his New York Times review of the show, "are our sole connection to a world of conventional relationships and values." "During the eight months Jay and Arty spend with their relatives," Richards continued, "Bella takes it into her addled head that she's going to leave home, marry the usher at the local movie house, open a restaurant and have babies—more or less in that order." Grandma opposes Bella's show of individuality, and, with Arty's and Jay's help, Bella stages her own defiance of the family matriarch. "We are relieved, at the end, when the father reappears," wrote James S. Torrens in America. "And the youngsters, who have made it through the same ordeals as their parents … can be seen as having survived. Lost in Yonkers touches all the chords."
Critics have remarked on how Simon's later plays—including Lost in Yonkers and his autobiographical trilogy—turn from straight comedy toward the depiction of suffering. "Over the last decade," Richards wrote in a New York Times Magazine piece about the playwright, "pain has slowly crept into the comic world of Neil Simon. Although his popularity remains undiminished, his increasing willingness to recognize that the uproariously funny can also be ineffably sad may be freeing him from the taint of craven commercialism."
"He was already a past master at depicting the sundry ways people get on one another's nerves," the critic wrote in a Washington Post article on Simon's career. "What have surfaced increasingly in his mature works are the hurt, the sadness and the longings that possess his characters. In Lost in Yonkers,… the ache and the absurdity of living are inextricably interwoven." Richards further noted that the prestigious National Theater of Britain has performed Brighton Beach Memoirs, that Time magazine cited Broadway Bound as the "best American play of the 1980s," and that PBS had deemed him worthy of inclusion with luminaries such as Jasper Johns, Cole Porter, and Edward R. Murrow by profiling him in the American Masters television series. Summarizing the reasons for Simon's enduring popularity, Richards declared that he is "the least philosophical of playwrights and politics rarely intrudes upon his world…. What he returns to, time and again, are the dynamics and difficulties of personal relationships, as they transpire in an essentially middle-class society—a perspective that helps explain the loyalty of Broadway audiences."
After the high drama of Lost in Yonkers, Simon returned to straight comedy in two farces: Rumors (1988) and Jake's Women (1992). In both cases critics remarked that the plays seemed almost too lightweight after the successes of his autobiographical plays and Lost in Yonkers. Rumors is "a self-described farce," reported Frank Rich in the New York Times, "that has nothing on its mind except making the audience laugh. And not exactly in the Moliere manner. Maybe I've led a charmed life, but I can't recall hearing this many toilet jokes since the ninth grade." Jake's Women received "scathing" reviews in the Los Angeles Times, stated New York Times reporter Mervyn Rothstein, and "the San Diego critics said it needed a lot of work but had promise."
Jake's Women and Simon's next play, Laughter on the 23rd Floor (1993), both failed to make a profit, in part because of the expense of Broadway productions. When Laughter on the 23rd Floor—based on stories from Simon's life working on Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows—met with good reviews and had a decent run but was less than a financial success, Simon declared his intention to open his next play Off-Broadway. London Suite, a series of four one-act plays, opened Off-Broadway in 1995 and later traveled successfully to Chicago.
With his year 2000 play Dinner Party, Simon is once again "simply out to have fun," according to Clifford A. Ridley in the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service. Ridley thought even the set of the play was "funny," with dialogue "zestily peppered with insult and misunderstanding." Simon devises an intriguing dinner party: three men, unknown to one another, have been invited by a common acquaintance, the divorce lawyer who served each successfully. Three other places are also laid at the table; seats for these men's former wives. Ridley ultimately felt that Simon's "insights seldom have matched his obsessiveness," and that comedy is soon replaced by a "string of colloquies about love and marriage."
In his 2003 play about love and loss, Rose and Walsh, Simon "finally confronts the afterlife and its effects on loved ones left behind, creating his most rewarding play in years," wrote Phil Gallo in Variety. Rose is a hard-living, prize-winning writer facing not only the end of her career but life without Walsh, her husband and legendary writer, who died five years earlier. Walsh has, however, kept in contact in a ghostly manner with his wife, and now recommends that she finish one of his mystery novels and also that she bring in a ghost writer, Clancy, a seemingly washed-up writer, to do so. Added to this strange brew is Arlene, Rose's secret daughter from a fling many years ago, a young woman who has only been able to spend time with her mother since Walsh's death. Somewhat inspired by the real-life relationship between Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman, Rose and Walsh "is ultimately about transitions," Gallo further commented. Diane Haithman, reviewing the play in the Los Angeles Times, found it a "quirky love story," but one very much still under construction. For Haithman, it was an "erratic effort that, despite a few bright moments, plot-twists slowly in the wind." Gallo, however, felt the play was "simple in its construction—an often-comical, eventually poignant ghost story—and refreshing in its logic." Gallo also felt that Simon managed to strike "that delicate balance between the comic … and the profound."
Although primarily known for his plays, Simon also has written a score of popular films. These include the screen adaptations of many of his own hit plays—including Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, and The Sunshine Boys—as well as such original screenplays as The Cheap Detective, Murder by Death, and The Goodbye Girl. Simon's best screen work is found in films where he creates a desperate situation, Vincent Canby argued in the New York Times. Simon's "wisecracks define a world of mighty desperation," Canby wrote, "in which every confrontation, be it with a lover, a child, a husband, a friend or a taxi driver, becomes a last chance for survival. When he writes a work in which the desperation is built into the situations, Mr. Simon can be both immensely funny and surprisingly moving."
But not all critics appreciate Simon's film work. Simon's adaptations of his own plays, while often good box office, have sometimes been criticized for being too stagey, like "photographed plays," as Johnson put it. Yet, most of Simon's films, especially The Heartbreak Kid and Only When I Laugh, have been extremely popular with audiences and critics alike.
The Heartbreak Kid concerns a young couple who get divorced during their honeymoon in Florida after the husband meets another woman. Simon creates humor in this film, as Johnson allowed, "out of situations which are not basically surefire comedy material." It is this blend of the humorous and the essentially tragic—with the humor emerging naturally from the actions and speech of the characters—which makes The Heartbreak Kid "the best film created thus far from a Neil Simon script," Johnson believed.
Only When I Laugh was also a critical success for Simon. It tells the story of Georgia Hines, an alcoholic Broadway actress who, despite rehabilitation, cannot beat her dependence. Georgia "is one of the most interesting, complicated characters that Mr. Simon, the master of the sometimes self-defeating one-liner, has ever written," according to Canby. Johnson found Only When I Laugh "one of the most absorbing pieces of work that Simon has written."
Yet after all his film successes, Simon eventually came to feel "disenchantment with Hollywood," according to Richards. The movie-making industry, which used to "give him carte blanche … now subjects him to the same corporate humiliations as anyone else." After an unhappy alliance with Disney Studios for the film The Marrying Man, Simon observed to Richards: "With a play, I have only two people to please—myself and the director…. With this movie it was nineteen executives, plus a director who'd never done anything but animation before, and two stars who would tell you what lines they'd say and what lines they wouldn't say." Richards concluded that despite the troubles plaguing the New York theater scene, "Simon knows his place, and it's on Broadway. If he is not so sure what that means these days, he thinks it still denotes accessibility and craftsmanship. It has to do with refining every detail, every line, every moment, so that he can feel, as he rarely does on opening night, a momentary sense of completion, of coming in to land."
Simon did venture onto the screen again, however, with his 1998 update of the antics of his humorous couple, Oscar and Felix. Odd Couple II finds the unlikely duo long retired and en route to their children's wedding in California. "Getting there is all the fun," noted George Meyer in the Sarasota Herald Tribune. During the course of their journey, the two manage to lose their luggage, get lost and arrested, and "bicker and spat continuously," as Leah Rozen noted in People. Meyer felt that Simon came up with a "delightful comedy," and one that is "witty, insightful and some of the best Simon writing in years." Other critics were not so positive about the merits of the movie. Renee Graham, writing in the Boston Globe, thought the picture was a "time-worn mixture of road picture and buddy movie" with a "lousy" script. Entertainment Weekly critic Mike D'Angelo called the movie a "dire sequel" and a "feeble" comedy, and Rosen felt the adventures of Felix and Oscar were "more strained than amusing," making for "one mighty long, slow journey."
"Writing is an escape from a world that crowds me," Simon admitted to New York Times contributor John Corry. "I like being alone in a room. It's almost a form of meditation—an investigation of my own life." He explained to William A. Henry how he begins a play: "There's no blueprint per se. You just go through the tunnels of your mind, and you come out someplace." Accepting his success as a writer has also been difficult. "I was depressed for a number of years," Simon told Corry. The opening of a new play filled him with guilt. It took psychoanalysis, and a consultation with his second wife's swami, before Simon learned to enjoy his accomplishments.
Simon explores his life in writing in two memoirs, Rewrites, which traces his first forty-six years of life, up to the death of his wife Joan in 1973, and The Play Goes On, which continues from that point through his marriages to Marsha Mason and Diane Lander and the successes of the 1980s. Along the way, he recounts numerous behind-the-scenes anecdotes about plays and play-making. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, writing in the New York Times, found Rewrites a "pleasant memoir," but with "surprisingly flat prose." For Everett Evans, writing in the Houston Chronicle, the same memoir was "frequently funny, occasionally poignant and resolutely unaffected." Similarly, Billboard's Trudi Miller Rosenblum thought the first installment was a "fascinating and thoughtful autobiography." Reviewing the second portion of the memoir, 1999's The Play Goes On, Larry King noted in USA Today that "Simon writes books as well as he writes plays, and there aren't any better." Peter Marks, writing in the New York Times Book Review, however, felt that despite a few "entertaining anecdotes," the book as a whole "feels tossed off." It was "too bad," Marks concluded, "this master play doctor was not encouraged to perform a little more surgery on his own story." Celia Wren, writing in American Theatre, found more to like in the title. She praised Simon's "low-key wit … [and] insight into the creative process."
Simon writes on a daily basis, although much of his work is never completed. Richards reported that "Simon's desk overflows with the plays he's begun over the years. On an average, for every one he finishes, there are ten he abandons after fifteen or twenty pages." Generally, if Simon gets past page thirty-five he will finish the play, a process that takes four months for a first draft, longer for the final draft. Come Blow Your Horn, for example, was rewritten twenty times before Simon was satisfied with it. In Broadway Bound, Simon has his alter ego, Eugene, say: "I love being a writer. It's the writing that's hard."
Despite the difficulty involved in writing, Simon has managed to produce an impressive body of work. A new Simon comedy every theatrical season was a Broadway staple for well over three decades. Henry called him "America's foremost stage comedist" and placed Simon "in the top rank of American playwrights." Rich similarly called him "not just a show business success but an institution." After surveying Simon's many achievements during his long career as a writer for the stage and screen, Johnson concluded by dubbing him "one of the finest writers of comedy in American literary history."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 6, 1976, Volume 9, 1979, Volume 31, 1985, Volume 39, 1986, Volume 70, 1991.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 7: Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1981.
Johnson, Robert K., Neil Simon, Twayne (Boston, MA), 1983.
Kerr, Walter, Thirty Plays Hath November, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1969.
Konas, Gary, Neil Simon: A Casebook, Garland (New York, NY), 1997.
McGovern, Edythe M., Neil Simon: A Critical Study, Ungar (New York, NY), 1979.
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Simon, John, Uneasy Stages: A Chronicle of the New York Theater, 1963–73, Random House (New York, NY), 1975.
Simon, Neil, Rewrites: A Memoir, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1996.
America, May 4, 1991, James S. Torrens, "Absent and Lost: Seasonal High Points," pp. 496-97.
American Theatre, December, 1999, Celia Wren, review of The Play Goes On: A Memoir, p. 80.
Billboard, January 11, 1997, Trudi Miller Rosenblum, review of Rewrites: A Memoir, p. 86.
Boston Globe, April 10, 1998, Renee Graham, review of The Odd Couple II, p. D7.
Chicago Sun Times, October 13, 1996, Bill Zwecker, "One on One with Bill Zwecker" p. 3NC.
Chicago Tribune, November 2, 1986, Richard Christiansen, "Neil Simon, Himself: Broadway Bound Bares Playwright's Heart and Soul," p. 4; December 13, 1992, Richard Christiansen, "The Goodbye Guy: You Can Make Book on Neil Simon's Musical Scripts," section 13, pp. 4-5; November 23, 1993, Richard Christiansen, "Laugh Factory Humor Flows from 23rd Floor," section 4, p. 20; October 8, 1995, Richard Christiansen, "Rewrite Specialist Even after 28 Plays, Neil Simon Is Still Fine-Tuning His Craft," section 7, p. 8.
Entertainment Weekly, October 9, 1998, Mike D'Angelo, review of The Odd Couple II, p. 90; November 12, 1999, Charles Winecoff, review of The Play Goes On, p. 74.
Financial Times, April 1, 1999, "Simon Is Just Too Cute for Words," p. 15.
Hollywood Reporter, June 21, 2002, Jay Reiner, "Oscar and Felix," pp. 22-23.
Houston Chronicle, November 17, 1996, Everett Evans, review of Rewrites, p. 22.
Humanist, September-October, 1976, Julius Novick.
Knight Ridder, October 9, 1996, Pat Craig, review of Rewrites, p. 1009K5245.
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Newsweek, April 14, 1980, Jack Kroll, "I Ought to Be in Pictures," p. 106; April 20, 1981, Jack Kroll, review of Fools, p. 104; December 15, 1986, Jack Kroll, review of It Only Hurts When I Laugh, p. 76; March 4, 1991, Jack Kroll, "Going Bonkers in Yonkers," p. 60; March 15, 1993, Jack Kroll, "This Goodbye Is a Bad Guy," p. 82; December 6, 1993, Jack Kroll, "When Laughter Wasn't Canned," p. 81; November 17, 1997, Jack Kroll, "The Forest of Simon," p. 94.
New York Times, April 5, 1981, John Corry, "Why Broadway's Fastest Writer Cannot Slow Down," p. 1; March 27, 1983, Leslie Bennetts, "Neil Simon Delves into His Past," p. H1; March 24, 1985, Nina Darnton, "From Neil Simon: A New Film, a New Play," p. H1; April 7, 1985, Frank Rich, review of Biloxi Blues, p. H1; December 5, 1986, Frank Rich, review of Broadway Bound, p. C3; December 26, 1986, Nina Darnton, "Danny Simon's View of Younger Brother Neil," p. C10; January 8, 1987, Frank Rich, "Neil Simon Takes On Neil Simon," p. C20; March 25, 1988, Vincent Canby, review of Biloxi Blues, p. C1; November 13, 1988, Mervyn Rothstein, "For Neil Simon, the Prescription Was Farce," pp. 13, 41; November 18, 1988, Frank Rich, review of Rumors, p. C3; March 3, 1991, David Richards, review of Lost in Yonkers, pp. 1, 7; April 5, 1992, David Richards, review of Jake's Women, pp. 5, 37; April 10, 1995, Vincent Canby, review of London Suite, pp. C9, C11; October 24, 1996, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, review of Rewrites, p. C19.
New York Times Book Review, October 24, 1999, Peter Marks, review of The Play Goes On, p. 19.
New York Times Magazine, May 26, 1985, "The Craft of the Playwright: A Conversation between Neil Simon and David Rabe," p. 36; February 17, 1991, David Richards, "The Last of the Red Hot Playwrights," pp. 30-32, 36, 57, 64.
People, April 20, 1998, Leah Rozen, review of The Odd Couple II, p. 35.
Philippine Daily Inquirer, March 2, 2002, Noelani Torre, review of Rewrites.
Sarasota Herald Tribune (Sarasota, FL), April 10, 1998, George Meyer, review of The Odd Couple II, p. 15.
Saturday Review, March 27, 1965, Henry Hewes.
Time, December 15, 1986, William A. Henry III, "Reliving a Poignant Past," p. 72; November 28, 1988, William A. Henry III, "Theater: Falling Short," p. 94.
Times—Picayune (New Orleans, LA), November 15, 2002, David Cuthbert, review of The Prisoner of Second Avenue, p. L14.
USA Today, October 4, 1999, Larry King, review of The Play Goes On, p. D2; October 7, 1999, David Patrick Stearns, review of The Play Goes On, p. D8.
Variety, February 17-23, 2003, Phil Gallo, review of Rose and Walsh, p. 48.
Washington Post, April 9, 1995, David Richards, "Simon: Give My Regards to Broadway; Economics Force Him to Think Small with New Play," p. G1; October 10, 1999, Jonathan Yardley, review of The Play Goes On, p. X2.
Kennedy Center Web site, http://www.kennedy-center.org/ (November 12, 2003), Kennedy Centers Honors Profile for 1995.