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Celebrity Slam - Farewell to Neil Simon

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Regular readers of this space know that sometimes, I take a break from the usual blend of snotty snark and celebrity portmanteaus to talk about something real. Usually, that break comes when a famous person who has had some sort of impact on me personally.

This is one of those times.

Neil Simon, the legendary playwright, passed away on August 26 at the age of 91. He was one of the most prolific – and most important – writers of the 20th century. His work helped define the theater for half-a-century; he is behind some of the most beloved stage comedies of all time.

As someone who has spent half his life involved in the theater, my experience with Simon’s work is considerable. While I’ve only been lucky enough to perform in one of his plays (a production of “Rumors” with Ten Bucks Theatre Company that happened long enough ago to make me feel uncomfortable with thinking about it too much), I’ve seen numerous productions of his work and read even more, both for academic reasons and for pure pleasure.

Do I have a favorite? Hard to say. Obviously, I’ll always have a soft spot for “Rumors,” but it’s probably safe to call it mid-tier Simon. “The Odd Couple” is probably his most famous piece – and it’s certainly one of the most fun to watch. The autobiographical trilogy of “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” “Biloxi Blues” and “Broadway Bound” is a phenomenal collection of work. And the flat-out BEST is probably “Lost in Yonkers,” for which he received a much-deserved Pulitzer Prize to go with the Emmys and Tonys and whatnot he had already accumulated.

And that’s without mentioning the “Suite” plays – “Plaza Suite,” “California Suite” and “London Suite” – or comic classics like “Barefoot in the Park” and “Last of the Red Hot Lovers” and “The Sunshine Boys.” Remarkable to think that all these – and dozens more – sprang from the same pen.

(And never forget – Neil Simon is the man who gave us the screenplay to the spectacular 1976 comedy “Murder By Death.” Yes, he was a playwright first and foremost, but the guy wrote some awfully successful movies as well – both adaptations of his own plays and screen originals alike.)

And yet, as weird as it is to say about a guy who penned some 30-plus plays and saw numerous Broadway successes, who both put up big box office numbers and won prestigious awards … he was (and is) kind of underrated.

I’m as guilty of underrating him as anyone. Many of us, when we undertake a “serious” study of the theater, go through phases of dismissing popular works. “Simon’s work is just fluff,” we’d tell ourselves. “It’s fine work, but it doesn’t MEAN anything.”

It took growing up a little to realize just how brilliant a craftsman Neil Simon truly was. Not just in terms of creating light comedy – though if you think there has been anyone who consistently created better, snappier dialogue over an extended stretch, I’ll be happy to explain to you why you’re wrong – but in terms of genuine pathos. Simon’s best plays tended to be funny, sure, but the reason that comedy worked is because it was grounded in something real. The people who populate the tales that Neil Simon told felt actualized. They felt true. And truth can be awfully difficult to find anywhere, let alone on the stage.

That truth is a large part of why his work never fails to resonate. Even his oldest plays – works that are 40, 50, coming up on 60 years old – connect with modern audiences. Sure, some of them are a little dated, but the basic underlying stories that they tell are largely timeless. They capture something fundamental about what it means to be human – and more often than not, they make us laugh while they do it.

As someone who loves the theater, it’s hard not to be saddened by the passing of a giant. Sure, he might not have been the sort of edgy or transgressive figure that achieves iconoclastic status, but so what? He gave us a brilliant body of work, a deceptively complex canon packed with plays that thoroughly capture a particular flavor of the American experience. The theater was lucky to have him.

Rest in peace, Mr. Simon.

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