Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

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.”

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Arts and Culture First English-Language Trailer Debuts for Natalie Portman’s Hebrew Film ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness,’ Based on Amos Oz’s Memoir (VIDEO)

    First English-Language Trailer Debuts for Natalie Portman’s Hebrew Film ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness,’ Based on Amos Oz’s Memoir (VIDEO)

    The first English-language trailer for Natalie Portman’s directorial debut — A Tale of Love and Darkness — based on Israeli author Amos Oz’s memoir, was released on Thursday. The movie, originally filmed in Hebrew, tells the story of Oz’s childhood in Jerusalem at the end of the British Mandate and the early years of Israel’s independence. Portman, who was born in Israel and speaks fluent Hebrew, plays the lead role of Fania, the author’s mother. She struggles to raise her son as she deals with inner demons, a […]

    Read more →
  • Features As Berlin Prices Rise, Israelis Turn East for German Real-Estate Bargains

    As Berlin Prices Rise, Israelis Turn East for German Real-Estate Bargains

    JNS.org – Sonnenallee, a street in Berlin’s Neukölln district, looks like it comes straight out of an Arab city — so much so that it goes by the nickname “Gaza Strip.” Kebab and bakery shops are advertised in Arabic; men sit in men-only coffee shops; and bridal shop windows showcase glittery, not-so-stylish gowns. But take a random turn, and you’ll find a swath of bars, burger joints, and Indian restaurants where hip Berliners announce that they have arrived to urban coolness. […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Israeli Actress Gal Gadot Slays in ‘Wonder Woman’ Trailer (VIDEO)

    Israeli Actress Gal Gadot Slays in ‘Wonder Woman’ Trailer (VIDEO)

    Israeli actress Gal Gadot engages in fierce action sequences in the new Wonder Woman trailer, which Warner Bros. premiered during the San Diego Comic-Con on Saturday. The nearly 3-minute trailer, the first to debut for the superhero film, shows scenes of Diana, princess of the Amazons, fighting alongside men in the battle against the world’s toughest enemies. The first shot of the video shows Wonder Woman discovering a man, Steve Trevor (played by actor Chris Pine), washed ashore. The clip then takes viewers to the all-female island where Wonder Woman was born. […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture A Theatrical Look at Diplomacy and the Oslo Accords (REVIEW)

    A Theatrical Look at Diplomacy and the Oslo Accords (REVIEW)

    Is diplomacy worthwhile, even if the end result isn’t what we hoped for? That is the question, among many others, posed by the new play Oslo, by J.T. Rogers. Making its New York debut at Lincoln Center, the play examines the secret diplomatic process that led to the historic 1993 peace accords. The character of Shimon Peres makes an appearance onstage — and he, along with Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, tower over the proceedings. But they mainly do so in absentia. Instead, […]

    Read more →
  • Spirituality/Tradition Sports Israeli Trailblazer Dean Kremer Brings Jewish Values to Nascent Pro Baseball Career

    Israeli Trailblazer Dean Kremer Brings Jewish Values to Nascent Pro Baseball Career

    JNS.org – Other than being part of the Los Angeles Dodgers organization, Sandy Koufax and Dean Kremer have something else in common: a respect for Jewish tradition. Koufax — who was recently ranked by ESPN as the best left-handed pitcher in Major League Baseball (MLB) history — decided not to pitch Game 1 of the 1965 World Series because the game fell on Yom Kippur. “I would do the same,” Kremer said in an interview. Last month, the 20-year-old Kremer became […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Lead Guitarist of British Rock Band Queen Asks Adam Lambert to Sing in Hebrew During Upcoming Israel Concert

    Lead Guitarist of British Rock Band Queen Asks Adam Lambert to Sing in Hebrew During Upcoming Israel Concert

    The famed lead guitarist of British rock band Queen, Brian May, encouraged Jewish singer-songwriter Adam Lambert to perform in Hebrew during their upcoming joint concert in Israel, an entertainment industry advocacy organization reported on Tuesday. During a recent interview with Israeli television personality Assi Azar, May was played a 2005 video of Lambert singing the popular song Shir L’Shalom, (Song for Peace). May was so impressed by Lambert’s singing of the Hebrew track that he told the American singer, “We have to do that. Let’s […]

    Read more →
  • Sports Kenyan Marathoner to Compete for Israel in Rio Olympics

    Kenyan Marathoner to Compete for Israel in Rio Olympics

    JNS.org – Kenyan-born marathoner Lonah Chemtai is expected to compete for Israel at the Olympics Games in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil next month after gaining a last minute approval. “I am very proud [to represent Israel] and I hope to achieve a new personal best time,” Chemtai told Reuters. Chemtai, who grew up a rural village in western Kenya, first came to Israel in 2009 to care of the children of her country’s ambassador to Israel. The 27-year-old runner recently gained […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish Identity Will Laughs Lead to Love on Show About Orthodox Dating?

    Will Laughs Lead to Love on Show About Orthodox Dating?

    To date or not to date? That is not the question for most Modern Orthodox singles in New York. The question is when will they find their future spouses, and when will their families stop nagging them about having babies? Inspired by the success of the Israeli show “Srugim,” Leah Gottfried, 25, decided she would create and star in her own show, “Soon By You.” “Dating is so serious already,” Gottfried said. “We wanted to take a lighter approach and laugh at the […]

    Read more →