Goodbye, Neil Simon
Writers fade from fashion, nowhere more than in the field of playwriting. Neil Simon was one of the first playwrights I read from the printed page because the wonderful Samuel French bookshop, late of Fitzrovia and Covent Garden, stocked their own editions of play scripts (and still do, here).
Simon delighted in putting his characters through the pitfalls of urban life, in plays like ‘The Odd Couple’, ‘Barefoot in the Park’, ‘Brighton Beach Memoirs’, ‘Biloxi Blues’, ‘Sweet Charity’ (based on Fellini’s ‘Nights in Cabiria’), ‘The Sunshine Boys’ and ‘The Prisoner of Second Avenue’.
What might be termed ‘Catskills Vaudeville’ formed a hermetic training ground for the great Jewish comics, and Simon churned out jokes for the greatest, including Sid Caesar, whose staff also included the young Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner.
Reiner wrote a delightful book, ‘Enter Laughing’, about his experiences in this tension-drenched writers’ environment where Sid Caesar might demand new gags even after his show had already started going out live. I believe all writers should go through this kind of nerve-wracking churn ‘n’ burn to perfect their craft. ‘Enter Laughing’ was turned into an acerbic musical called’ So Long 174th Street’, and was clearly a formative time for all concerned.
Simon wasn’t scared of hitting his mark on serious subjects like marital strife, death and nervous breakdowns. In ‘The Prisoner of Second Avenue’ Jack Lemmon is fired from his job and rattles around the apartment where he lives with Anne Bancroft, railing against the world and New York. ‘And the food,’ he complains. ‘If I’d have known bread would get this bad I’d have saved some rolls when I was a kid.’
But laughter turns to tragedy when Lemmon suffers a mental collapse brought on by money worries, and it’s up to his wife to pull him back from the brink. (Lemmon is also suicidal in Simon’s ‘The Odd Couple’.)
‘The Sunshine Boys’ tells of a reunion between elderly comics who had a double act but can no longer stand one another. Walter Matthau and George Burns are hilarious as they argue about which words are funny and which aren’t.
Writers who choose this area of comic writing are a real rarity now, and Simon’s work is to be celebrated. Film versions of several of his plays are available.