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...

  • Features Unpacking the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict and Its Ripple Effect on Israel’s Region

    Unpacking the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict and Its Ripple Effect on Israel’s Region

    JNS.org – Aside from Israel itself, those with a vested interest in the Jewish state are accustomed to tracking developments related to Middle East players such as Iran, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. But much global attention has recently focused on the Caucasus region at the Europe-Asia border, specifically on the suddenly intensified violence between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh area of western Azerbaijan. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, while not taking place in Israel’s immediate neighborhood, does have what one scholar called […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Features Earth Day 2016: Israel Shines in Water Technology, Recycling, Renewable Energy

    Earth Day 2016: Israel Shines in Water Technology, Recycling, Renewable Energy

    JNS.org – On Friday, April 22, 196 nations across the world mark Earth Day, the annual day dedicated to environmental protection that was enacted in 1970. Not to be forgotten on this day is Israel, which is known as the “start-up nation” for its disproportionate amount of technological innovation, including in the area of protecting the environment. For Earth Day 2016, JNS.org presents a sampling of the Jewish state’s internal achievements and global contributions in the environmental realm. Water conservation Israeli […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture World New Documentary Explores Holocaust Humor, Role That Laughter Played in Death Camps

    New Documentary Explores Holocaust Humor, Role That Laughter Played in Death Camps

    Holocaust humor and the role that laughter played in the lives of Jews during World War II are the focus of a documentary that made its world premiere on Monday at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. In The Last Laugh, first- and second-generation survivors, as well as famous Jewish and non-Jewish comedians, discuss their thoughts on when joking about the death camps is appropriate or taboo. “Nazi humor, that’s OK. Holocaust humor, no,” Jewish comedic giant, actor and filmmaker Mel Brooks says in the film. “Anything I […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Tragedy Culminates in ‘Celebration,’ Says Israeli Author Who Lost Son to Terror

    Tragedy Culminates in ‘Celebration,’ Says Israeli Author Who Lost Son to Terror

    JNS.org – Sherri Mandell’s life was devastated on May 8, 2001, when her 13-year-old son Koby was murdered by terrorists on the outskirts of the Israeli Jewish community of Tekoa. Yet Mandell not only shares the story of her loss, but also celebrates the lessons she has learned from tragedy. Indeed, “celebrate” is this Israeli-American author’s word choice. Her second book, The Road to Resilience: From Chaos to Celebration (Toby Press), came out earlier this year. The lesson: in every celebration, there is […]

    Read more →
  • Features Opinion For Alan Gross, Cuban Prison Didn’t Harden His Heart or Weaken His Ambition

    For Alan Gross, Cuban Prison Didn’t Harden His Heart or Weaken His Ambition

    JNS.org – Alan Gross used to be nothing more to me than a tragic headline. When I started my position at this news service in July 2011, Gross had been imprisoned in Cuba since December 2009 for what that country called “crimes against the state.” Gross, a subcontractor for the United States Agency for International Development, went to Cuba to help the Jewish community there access the Internet. After his arrest, he received a trial he describes as a “B movie,” […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Features New Movie Shows How Global Economic Instability Grew From Very Local Greed

    New Movie Shows How Global Economic Instability Grew From Very Local Greed

    JNS.org – When I saw the recent Academy Award-winning film “The Big Short,” I was struck by the sheer genius of the financiers who devised the schemes and packaged the loans for resale, but it left me with unanswered questions about how the properties these loans represented were moved. “The Big Short” was largely about paper transactions, big money, and wealthy investors, and it mildly touched on the way the actual end-users — the home buyers and brokers — played into this […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Book Reviews Psychiatry and the Spirit

    Psychiatry and the Spirit

    Why do we think so negatively about psychiatrists that we still insult them by calling them shrinks? Some medics might be quacks, but we don’t generally refer to them as witches! Shrinks; The Untold Story of Psychiatry, by Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman, is a sobering account of how psychiatry has swung from a marginal, unscientific mixture of weird theories into one of the most common and pervasive forms of treatment of what are commonly called “disorders of the mind.” Is it […]

    Read more →
  • Features Opinion At Forbes Summit in Israel, Entrepreneurship Is a ‘Common Language’

    At Forbes Summit in Israel, Entrepreneurship Is a ‘Common Language’

    JNS.org – Nine months ago, Seth Cohen, director of network initiatives for the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, and Randall Lane, editor of Forbes Magazine, were schmoozing about the “vibrancy of Tel Aviv and soul of Jerusalem,” as Lane put it. They dreamed about how they could bring young and innovative millennials to the so-called “start-up nation.” From April 3-7, Forbes turned that dream into a reality. Israel played host to the first-ever Forbes Under 30 EMEA (Europe, the Middle East, and Africa) […]

    Read more →