WASHINGTON, D.C. (JTA) — On Sunday, the theater community’s reactions to the death of playwright Neil Simon came even as social media were still processing the death the day before of Sen. John McCain. The homages to McCain bordered on the hagiographic until fights erupted (this being Facebook) between those who remembered the Arizona senator’s opposition to Martin Luther King Day and those who admired his bipartisanship and self-scrutiny.
Almost everyone remembering Neil Simon, on the other hand, did so with wistfulness, because everyone in the theater business had been touched by the breadth of Simon’s achievement.
Playwrights remembered how Simon crafted a line and set up an entrance; more than anything, they appreciated the crest of his career: how it shot forth like a cannon yet managed to sustain and grow ever more impressive, penetrating and personally revealing with the writing of the Eugene Trilogy — “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” “Biloxi Blues” and “Broadway Bound.”
Actors remembered what it was to perform Simon.
“It was almost impossible,” said Broadway veteran and now writer Peter Birkenhead, “to go fully up on a line in a Neil Simon play” — that is, improvise a forgotten line of dialogue — “because the next thing out of your character’s mouth always followed naturally from the last thing and pointed towards the next.”
Producers remembered the dependability of the Simon brand and the vast volume of it. They remembered Simon either as their “bread and butter” or their “stock and trade.” Then there were those like me who, once upon a time, as a younger renegade, remember condescending to Simon, referring to him as a “sop” to subscribers; a thing to define oneself against — until growing out of such sanctimony to embrace his achievement.
Producers would sneer at Neil Simon for other reasons too. I remember a goyishe theater company in the middle of Michigan, not far from Ann Arbor, back in the ’90s, where the artistic director said that they defined their brand of comedy as being “the opposite of Neil Simon. Less New York in our references, less guilt-ridden, less neurotic, or driven by a particular kind of rhythm.” That struck me as vaguely anti-Semitic at the time – and strikes me as less vaguely and more explicitly so today, despite the admirable cultivation of “local voices.” Neil Simon, it appears, was so big that he became something to rebel against, for Jews and non-Jews alike.
My first reflection upon hearing of Simon’s passing was to think of the death of Philip Roth almost 100 days earlier: twin towers of literary and theatrical achievement now gone. Prolific, uninhibited, and unapologetically gifted, Simon and Roth in their passing seem to have left a hole in the fabric of American Jewish culture. The very garment of that fabric is now moth-eaten: that power suit of the Straight White Jewish Male Secularist who, in the cases of Roth and Simon, spawned their own veritable one-man industries. That period of immense dominance is now done.
Theirs were the careers to look up to, back in the day, if you were dreaming of a life as a writer. Surely there were differences between them beyond discipline; Roth the provocateur and prolix subversive; Simon the pleasing jester, chafing at life’s annoyances, who played conflict and odd couplings for theatrical laughs. But their shared vibrancy, moxie and attitude — unapologetically Jewish yet secularized; worshiping the ironies of the American experience more than the signposts of Jewish history — were instructive tickets that they passed onto their progenitors and colleagues.
They each had their particular American Voice down pat: urban and urbane; assimilated with healthy shmears of cultural quirks and loyalty, along with a cranky independence, interwoven into an identity that could clearly be demarcated as “New York Times Arts Section Jewish.”
I’m glad I met Neil Simon when I did, in the early ’90s, while on a trip to L.A. for a reading of a play of mine. I was at a lunch meeting, pitching a project to a friend in the business from Chicago at an upscale Hamburger Hamlet in Westwood. We spied Neil Simon sitting alone reading “The Jordan Rules” by Sam Smith, right after the Bulls had won their second NBA championship.
Simon was then on the crest of what seemed to be a career high point, soon to earn a Pulitzer Prize for “Lost in Yonkers.” Perhaps Simon could identity with the book’s unseemly treatment of Michael Jordan, just as Simon had to endure sneering critics who found his substance somehow lacking. Despite the achievement of the Eugene Trilogy, “Lost in Yonkers” had gotten trashed in Washington that winter. The New York Times critic who had so admired the trilogy also sniffed at Simon’s latest.
But “Lost in Yonkers” would wind up running for two years on Broadway and found a new way to impact audiences — or at least me. And that’s what I wanted to talk to Neil about in Hamburger Hamlet.
At the time, I too was working on a play about my own German-Jewish family. In “Yonkers,” we meet Bella Kurnitz, a sweet, middle-aged, behaviorally-challenged woman still living at home. Her successful brothers have moved onto busy lives outside the home, leaving Bella to live with their fierce, commanding and less-than demonstrative mother, who scares her visiting grandsons half to death. With the exception of that icy Grandmother Kurnitz, the set-up reminded me of the situation in my own father’s family, and his own troubled sister, my Aunt Irene. Like Bella, she had been born with scarlet fever, was a little bit slow and very much the black sheep. Overshadowed as she approached middle age, she was a girl in a woman’s body with dreams that would likely not come true. My Aunt Irene didn’t make it past 40 and, over the ensuing years, I tried to write what it meant to lose her.
A play came out but it took a long time – both in getting it produced, and then in trying to get it right; I probably never did. I was just at the beginning of writing that play when Neil Simon introduced Bella Kurnitz to the world, and I thought to myself, “He’s captured my Irene better than I ever will. And he’s saved her through comedy.” I admired Neil Simon for a lot of reasons but none more than for the effortless dexterity that went into “Yonkers.” Genius makes hard work look easy.
I got to produce “Lost in Yonkers” some 16 years later, as I grew more comfortable as an artistic director at a Jewish theater, and it became a huge hit for us, of course. It attracted great artists and great audiences alike. It also attracted that surly critic from the Washington Post, now a fulltime writer outside of journalism, who joined our team as production dramaturge, having given Neil Simon and his play another look. Neil Simon would be vindicated before his critics, and before those acolytes who thought they could craft a deeper brand of expression. Neil won on account of his genius.
What set Simon apart, especially from Roth, was the empathy on display to women: Bella and Grandma Kurnitz in “Lost in Yonkers,” and to Kate, the broken mother in “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and “Broadway Bound,” who would come to endure her husband’s defection, echoing the same betrayal in Simon’s own family. We see their grit, and then heartbreak, and then tenderness, framed in laughter.
Simon found his material from within, but he wrote outside of himself just as brilliantly. He was the Michael Jordan of Broadway — with all quirks, critics, and limitations that come with. But his achievement was singular, and the way he re-shaped the game – and the art form and business of theater – is total. We’ll not see his like again.
(Ari Roth is a playwright, producer and founding artistic director of Mosaic Theater Company of DC, dedicated to creating independent, intercultural, uncensored, socially relevant art. As artistic director over 18 seasons at Theater J, Roth built the fledgling DC theater into the largest Jewish theater in North America. Roth’s plays include “Born Guilty,” a sequel, “The Wolf In Peter,” “Andy and The Shadows,” “Life in Refusal,” “Oh, the Innocents,” “Love and Yearning in the Not for Profits” and “Goodnight Irene.”)