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In Appreciation: Neil Simon (1927 – 2018)

By Fredric Dannen

The playwright Neil Simon died at New York-Presbyterian Hospital on August 26, and to my mind, the news coverage of his passing was not as ample as he deserved. Everyone knows that Simon was the master of the one-liner. In his musical They’re Playing Our Song, a character is on the phone complaining that his new sports car has broken down on the road. “I think it’s the distributor,” he says, going on to explain: “The distributor! The crook who sold me the car!”

Simon was so skilled at delighting audiences with his laugh lines that at one time in the 1960s, he had four Broadway shows running simultaneously. But as a consequence, the critics tended to undervalue has talents as a playwright. Yes, the scribes would acknowledge, his classic comedies, such as Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple, were indestructible models of the form. “But all the success has demeaned me in a way,” Simon said. “Critically, the thinking seems to be that if you write too many hits, they can’t be that good.”

Simon’s reputation as a man of letters did not improve when his success finally ran out. Beginning in 1997, he wrote a series of flops, and after the tepid reception accorded to his 2003 comedy-drama Rose’s Dilemma, he gave up playwriting altogether.

The time has come for a serious reassessment of Broadway’s so-called “King of Comedy.” Many authors mine their own family histories early in their careers and then run out of subject matter. Simon waited until he had written 15 plays, and had thoroughly learned his craft before turning autobiographical in the 1980s. His trilogy, Brighton Beach Memoirs (1983), Biloxi Blues (1985) and Broadway Bound (1986), explored the pain and pathos, along with the survival mechanism of laughter, of his own working-class Jewish family. Those three plays alone should establish Simon as an important American playwright.

Simon topped even those three plays in 1991 with Lost in Yonkers, his finest achievement and his only play to win a Pulitzer Prize. Set during World War II, the play concerns the plight of two boys forced to live with their stern German-born grandmother while their father works to pay off his debts. The boys bond uneasily with their Aunt Bella, a woman in her thirties with cognitive problems but a clear sense of self-worth as she strives to break free from the loveless dominance of her mother, the boys’ grandmother.

In honor of Simon’s passing, the San Miguel Playhouse is presenting a new production of Lost in Yonkers with an outstanding cast in ten performances between October 17 and October 28. For more information and to purchase e-tickets online, visit sanmiguelplayhouse.com or boletocity.com. Regular tickets are on sale at Boleto City, Mercado Sano, 2nd floor (Ancha de San Antonio 123), Mon–Sat, 11am to 5pm.

 

Theater

Lost in Yonkers

Neil Simon

Featuring Lola Smith, Jocelynn Sunrise, Neil Sklar

Anwar Saadi, Joey Pawelko, Carlo Cordelli, Fil Formicola, and Kate Rowland

Oct 17–Oct 28

Wed–Sun, 3pm matinees

Thu–Sat, 7pm

400 pesos (center section)

300 pesos (side sections)

Tickets:

Boleto City, Mercado Sano, Mon–Sat, 11am–5pm

Online tickets:

sanmiguelplayhouse.com and boletocity.com

 

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