On Sunday, Neil Simon, the Bronx-born playwright and screenwriter who helped define twentieth-century American humor, passed away at the age of 91. Although Simon, during his decades atop the Broadway hierarchy, received seemingly every badge of recognition under the sun — seventeen Tony, four Oscar, and four Emmy nominations, respectively, plus a 1991 Pulitzer Prize, to boot — his work was frequently met, in the pages of the Village Voice, with less-than-glowing reception. In 2003, Voice theater critic Michael Feingold wrote of Rose’s Dilemma, Simon’s last produced play, that it “doesn’t mean anything to anybody and doesn’t reveal any understanding, on its author’s part, of how plays are written.” Feingold continued: “This was always Neil Simon’s weak point: Once a successful constructor of gag routines that could be crammed together to make evenings of theater, he’s never really bothered much about character and action — that is, about human beings and what they do.”
This reaction toward Simon’s work was not uncommon in the Voice — a strain of vitriol that Julius Novick directly addresses in “In Defense of Neil Simon,” an article from the December 31, 1970, issue, which opens with the question, “Why do people pick on poor Neil Simon?” (In a follow-up parenthetical, Novick clarifies what he means by “people”: “us radical liberals, us avant-gardists, us ‘Village Voice’ writers and readers, us enlightened ones.”) Novick, who contributed criticism to the Voice for decades, was writing on the occasion of The Gingerbread Lady, Simon’s 1970 play that lasted on Broadway for a mere handful of months, but nonetheless earned a Best Actress Tony for its star, Maureen Stapleton. At the time, Simon was still riding his first great wave of fame, just a few years removed from the mid-Sixties smashes — Barefoot in the Park (1963), The Odd Couple (1965) — that established his celebrity. “Simon,” Novick writes, “has become the ultimate contemporary symbol of Broadway success.”
Novick goes on to acknowledge certain shortcomings in Simon’s work, observing that his plays can be “so relevant to his own audience that it can seem very remote to anyone outside this audience.” But “if Mom and Dad from Great Neck really like this stuff,” Novick adds, “why should we try to make them feel uncomfortable about it? They are entitled to a little of the same tolerance from us that we demand from them.” And then, in a sentence that rings particularly true amid today’s opinion-mad social-media landscape, Novick states: “We ought to avoid trying to pass off our personal preferences as moral imperatives.”
Novick’s full “In Defense of Neil Simon” article is reprinted below. Return to the Voice throughout the rest of the week for additional coverage regarding Simon’s passing.