Neil Simon’s Jewish-Infused Work, Underappreciated by Critics, Continues to Sell

December 18, 2012 8:27 pm 0 comments

Walter Matthau as Oscar Madison and Art Carney as Felix Ungar from the original Broadway production of Neil Simon's "The Odd Couple." Photo: Henry Grossman/Wikimedia Commons.

While experts say famed Jewish playwright Neil Simon is under-appreciated, box office demand attests to his continued influence.

The New Jewish Theater in St. Louis opened its 2012-13 season with Simon’s play “Lost in Yonkers,” and the Northlight Theater in Chicago ran a production of “The Odd Couple” this month. Many other theaters nationwide continue to perform his plays.

Simon has more Oscar and Tony nominations than any other writer, yet he has not gotten his due, according to Susan Koprince, author of the book Understanding Neil Simon and a professor at the University of North Dakota.

“Most scholars would rate Simon lower and not call him a great playwright,” Koprince told JNS.org. “I think they’d choose a serious dramatist, not someone who writes comedy. That is not fair. Writers of comedy have been devalued for centuries even though it is a difficult kind of drama to write. For great playwrights, most would pick Eugene O’Neil, Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller. Perhaps Simon is not on their level but he is under-appreciated and in terms of greatness, we should look at comedy. Simon is a real master of comedy.”

The work of Simon—who has written more than 30 plays and the same number of screenplays—can be understood through the lens of his beginnings. Born in the Bronx to Jewish parents (his father Irving was a garment salesman and his mother Mamie was a homemaker), Simon was deeply moved by his parents’ tempestuous marriage and financial hardships brought on by the Great Depression. He often took refuge in movie theaters watching early comedians like Charlie Chaplin, who inspired him to become a comedy writer.

Simon’s plays “invariably depict the plight of white middle-class Americans, most of whom are New Yorkers and many of whom are Jewish, like himself,” according to Koprince.

“In plays such as “Lost in Yonkers,” Simon suggests the necessity of a loving marriage, opposite to that of his parents’ [marriage], and when children are deprived of it in their home, they end up emotionally damaged and lost,” Koprince wrote in Understanding Neil Simon.

Koprince expanded on how Simon’s Jewish heritage influenced his work.

“In the Brighton Beach trilogy (“Brighton Beach Memoirs”), the lead character is a master of self-deprecating humor, cleverly poking fun at himself and at his Jewish culture as a whole,” Koprince told JNS.org. “Simon himself has described his characters as ‘often self-deprecating and who usually see life from the grimmest point of view.’ This theme in writing belongs to a tradition of Jewish humor, a tradition which values laughter as a defense mechanism and which sees humor as a healing, life-giving force.”

Due to popular demand, Chicago’s Northlight Theatre extended its production of Simon’s Tony Award-winning comedy classic of famously mismatched roommates Oscar Madison and Felix Unger. When recently failed marriages force slovenly Oscar to share an apartment with fastidious Felix, the pair must determine whether their differences are irreconcilable.

B.J. Jones, artistic director at the Northlight, told JNS.org, “‘The Odd Couple’ is a brilliant piece of comic writing.”

“Our production was set in 1965 and yet it feels fresh,” Jones said. “We invest in the characters as if it were written today, and I believe most of the reviews reflect that freshness and immediacy.”

Going back to Simon’s roots, Koprince explained that the playwright “acknowledges he had a painful childhood.”

“He uses humor and laughter as a coping device,” she told JNS.org. “Out of that humor comes a greater strength and a sense that you have transcended whatever pain is there. In his plays, his characters are in painful situations but the humor comes in as a way of dealing with that. It is a healing force that comes from his Jewish heritage.”

Simon’s comedies are based around subjects such as marital conflict, infidelity, sibling rivalry, adolescence, and fear of aging. Most of his plays are at least partly autobiographical, portraying his troubled childhood and different stages of his life.

A facility with dialogue gives Simon’s stories a rare blend of realism, humor and seriousness, which audiences find easy to identify with, but starting with his first play, “Come Blow Your Horn,” it is mainly Simon’s humor that shines through, Koprince said.

“He has a wonderful talent for verbal humor, the one liner,” she said. “They seem to come naturally to him. He manages to make painful situations seem funny. At the heart of his plays he’s saying how sad life is but also how funny life is.”

Koprince is particularly drawn to Simon when the focus is Pulitzer Prize-winning “Lost in Yonkers” and Tony Award-winning “The Odd Couple.”

“I think ‘The Odd Couple’ is a classic and will remain current through the years and be played in community theaters throughout the country because we know the characters and they are so real to us,” she told JNS.org. “’Lost in Yonkers’ is my favorite and it is his deepest play. He combines the laughter and the tears beautifully. What he’s saying is this: love, family and solidarity carry us through.”

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