Theater

For the Comedy Maestro Neil Simon, Theater Critics Were No Laughing Matter

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There’s a truism in journalism along the lines of: If you want to make a mark, target the biggest player on your beat. When I was growing up, and certainly when I first began reviewing Broadway shows in the mid-Seventies for a Manhattan weekly called Our Town, there was no bigger player on the beat than Neil Simon. For an Off-Broadway baby like me, formed in the south-of–14th Street cauldron of the Public Theater, La MaMa, the Performing Garage, and Judson Poets Theatre, Simon — with his machine-turned one-liners and bougie couples struggling, and failing, to behave like adults — epitomized a culture on its way out. As targets go, he proffered a bull’s-eye the size of a barn.

And so when, in the early Eighties, I became the chief critic at The Dallas Morning News, interviewing the great god Simon — who passed away over the weekend at 91 — was a challenge. He and his producer, Emanuel Azenberg, had chosen the hometown of Margo Jones for the Broadway tryout of what Variety would call the “all-femme” Odd Couple, with Rita Moreno as Olive Madison and Sally Struthers as Florence Ungar. Among the renovations accompanying that quintessentially male comedy’s sex change, poker was replaced by Trivial Pursuit. True fact.

One of my duties at The Dallas Morning News was writing advance stories on new shows, and that frequently meant a conversation with the playwright. In the case of The Odd Couple, when our telephone interview was over, Simon asked if we were done. Yes, I said. “Mr. Gerard, had I known you were the critic in Dallas, I’d have never opened my show there,” he said. “With some critics I’m batting a thousand. With others, I’m batting .500. With you, I’m batting zero. So I have to assume you’ve written your review before you see my play.”

I replied that I hoped whatever else he got from my review, he’d know it wasn’t written beforehand. The show was, indeed, horrible. (“The playwright is not at his best when imagining female characters,” Frank Rich understated in his Times review a few weeks later.) But it didn’t shake my conviction even back then that the original was one of the funniest plays ever written. It turned out, I later learned, that Simon cared not a whit about The Dallas Morning News; it was the fact that I was also the stringer for Variety, which meant my review would appear there. The richest playwright in history was pissed that, like the woodcutter on the mountain, my review in the industry trade paper might have an impact on Neil Simon, Inc.

Not long after, one of my first assignments as the Broadway reporter for the New York Times required a trip to Washington, D.C., where Broadway Bound — the capstone to Simon’s autobiographical trilogy (1982–86) — was shaking out before heading north to Times Square. I loved the play and became privy to Simon’s obsessive rewriting to nail every punchline — but also, in this case, to heat up the human dimension.

I was particularly struck by an exchange that comes after Eugene (read: Neil) and his older brother, Stan (read: Danny Simon, the playwright’s mentor and idol), have joined their kvetching, contentious family around the radio to hear the first comedy sketch they’ve sold. The elders have quickly realized their fractious household has been mercilessly lampooned. Stung by his parents’ anger, Stan insists that the characters were composites of family members and of everyone from the ’hood. Eugene knows better:

“No,” he says bluntly. “It was only them. I didn’t know I was so angry. Like there’s a part of my head that makes me this nice, likable, funny kid — and there’s the other part, the part that writes, that’s angry, hostile.” I figured that told us pretty much everything we need to know about Neil Simon — and I mean that in the most complimentary way. I was starting to like the guy. After all, back in Dallas, when the all-femme Odd Couple was working out its kinks, he’d actually fired Danny, who was directing, and brought in Gene Saks, a more experienced Simon hand, to nurse it to Broadway.

After my admiring Times story on Broadway Bound ran on the front page of what Alex Cockburn, in the print pages of this very publication, once referred to as “the Holy Church of Arts & Leisure,” I received a note from the playwright. No more Mr. Gerard. “Dear Jeremy,” it read. “I’m glad I’m no longer batting zero with you. Best, Neil”

But wait, there’s more.

For more than two decades, Simon reliably turned out a play a year, a record the critic Walter Kerr spoofed in his review of Simon’s Star Spangled Girl: “Neil Simon, your friendly neighborhood gagman, hasn’t had an idea for a play this season, but he’s gone ahead and written one anyway.” It’s a canard that only Simon’s later plays —­ the “BB” trilogy of Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, and Broadway Bound, along with the Pulitzer Prize–winning Lost in Yonkers — drew from his life. In truth, all of his plays had done that. In 1993, he wrote Laughter on the 23rd Floor, a thinly veiled depiction of life in the writers’ room at Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows — whose incipient-star roster included Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, Lucille Kallen, and Selma Diamond, as well as the Simon brothers.

By this time, I was the chief critic at Variety, and I liked Laughter, flawed though it was. It was very funny, but it also captured the freak-out paranoia of the early-Fifties era of red baiting and the blacklist, a tension that added a dangerous electric sizzle to the feral antics. It wasn’t a particularly nice sitcom: The sit was fraught, and the com was rooted in fear.

“Dear Jeremy, I am very grateful for your review,” Simon wrote me then, after attacking the Times, from which he felt (wrongly, by the way) he got no respect. “Not just because it was favorable (and God knows that would be enough) but because you call them as you see them…we are all indebted for your fairness and ability to enjoy wall to wall comedy even when the wall has a crack here and there. If I had another few weeks, I could have called in the plasterer. Warmest regards, Neil.”

Cracks, plasterer: So much reverted to his determination to fix things, to get it right. That’s why he called the first volume of his autobiography Rewrites. As it happens, I reviewed Rewrites for the Times Book Review. It wasn’t nearly as revealing as his plays, and I didn’t like it much. One admiring sentence was pulled for the cover.

But neither Mr. Gerard nor Jeremy ever got a letter for that one.

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