WASHINGTON, D.C. (JTA) – On Sunday, the theater community's reactions to the death of playwright Neil Simon even came when social media still treated death the day before from Senator John McCain. The homage to McCain borders on hagiography until battles broke out (this is Facebook) between those who remembered the opposition of the Arizona senator against Martin Luther King Day and those who admired his twin-mindedness and self-control.
Almost everyone who remembered Neil Simon did so, because everyone in the theater world was touched by the size of Simon's performance.
Playwrights remembered how Simon made a line and set up an entrance; more than anything else, they valued the top of his career: how it shot like a cannon and could still stand and grow, becoming more impressive, penetrating and personal revealing with the writing of the Eugene Trilogy – "Brighton Beach Memoirs," "Biloxi Blues" and "Broadway Bound."
Actors remembered what it was like to play Simon.
"It was almost impossible," said Broadway veteran and now writer Peter Birkenhead, "to record a line-up in a Neil Simon game" – that is, to improvise a forgotten dialogue line – "because the following From your character comes the mouth always followed naturally from the last and pointed to the next. "
Producers remembered the reliability of the Simon brand and its enormous volume. They also remembered Simon as their "bread and butter" or their "stock and trade." Then there were people like me who once remembered as a younger renegade, condescending to Simon, referring to him as a "sop" for subscribers; something to counter yourself – to the emergence of such holiness to embrace his achievement.
Producers would also laugh at Neil Simon for other reasons. I remember a goyishe theater company in the middle of Michigan, not far from Ann Arbor, in the 90s, where the artistic leader said that they had their comedy as "the opposite of Neil Simon." defined. Less New York in our references, less guilt, less neurotic, or driven by a certain kind of rhythm. "That struck me vaguely anti-Semitically – and I notice less vague and explicit today, despite the admirable cultivation of local voices." Neil Simon turned out to be so big he became something to counter. for both Jews and non-Jews.
My first consideration when hearing Simon's death was to think about the death of Philip Roth almost 100 days earlier: twin towers of literary and theatrical performance now vanished. Prolific, uninhibited and incomparably gifted, Simon and Roth seem to have left a gap in the structure of American Jewish culture in their passing. The 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, created their own real one-man industries. That period of immense dominance is now complete.
Of them were the careers to look up to, if you dreamed of a life as a writer. Of course there were differences between those who went beyond discipline; Roth the provocateur and prolix subversively; Simon, the pleasant jester, shocking about the annoyances of life, who played conflict and strange connections for theatrical laughter. But their shared liveliness, moxie and attitude – onapologetically Jewish but secularized; to worship the irony of the American experience more than the signposts of Jewish history – were instructional cards that they pass on to their ancestors and colleagues.
They each had their own American Voice down pat: urban and urban; assimilated with healthy shmears of cultural peculiarities and loyalty, along with a grumpy independence, interwoven into an identity that could be clearly demarcated as "New York Times Arts Section Jewish."
I am glad to have met Neil Simon when I was traveling to L.A. in the early years & # 39; for a lecture of a piece by me. I was at a lunch meeting and I threw a project to a friend in Chicago from a chic Hamburger Hamlet in Westwood. We saw Neil Simon sitting alone and read "The Jordan Rules" by Sam Smith, just after the Bulls had won their second NBA championship.
Simon was then on top of what seemed to be a career highlight, soon to earn a Pulitzer Prize for "Lost in Yonkers." Perhaps Simon could identify with the inappropriate treatment of Michael Jordan through the book, just as Simon had to deal with grinning critics who were missing his substance in one way or another. Despite gaining the Eugene trilogy, Lost in Yonkers & # 39; that winter in Washington trashed in the dustbin. The critic of the New York Times who had admired the trilogy, sniffed at the latest against Simon.
But "Lost in Yonkers" would run on Broadway for two years and find a new way to have an impact on the audience – or at least. And that's what I wanted to talk about in Hamburger Hamlet.
At that time I also worked on a piece about my own German-Jewish family. In "Yonkers" we meet Bella Kurnitz, a sweet, not yet living at home, middle-aged woman with behavioral problems. Her successful brothers have moved to busy lives outside the house, so that Bella lives with their fierce, commanding and less than demonstrative mother, who scares half of her visiting grandsons to death. With the exception of that icy grandmother Kurnitz, the scheme reminded me of the situation in my own father's family and his own troubled sister, my aunt Irene. Like Bella she was born with scarlet fever, was a bit slow and very much the black sheep. Overshadowed when she approached in middle age, she was a girl in the body of a woman with dreams that would probably not come true. My aunt Irene did not go over 40 and tried to write the following years what it meant to lose her.
A piece came out but it took a long time both to have it produced and to get it right; I probably never did. I was just at the beginning of writing that piece when Neil introduced Simon Kurnitz to the world, and I thought to myself: "He has captured my Irene better than I ever will, and he has saved her through a comedy. "I admired Neil Simon for many reasons, but nothing more than the effortless skill that went into" Yonkers ". Genius makes hard work easy.
I had to produce "Lost in Yonkers" about 16 years later, while I felt more at ease as the artistic director of a Jewish theater, and of course it became a huge hit for us. It attracted great artists and a large audience. It also attracted that grumpy critic of the Washington Post, now a full-time writer outside of journalism, who accompanied our team as a production dramaturge after he had given Neil Simon and his play another look. Neil Simon would be justified for his critics, and for those acolytes who thought they could make a deeper expression brand. Neil has won because of his genius.
What distinguished Simon, especially Roth, was the empathy that women saw: Bella and Grandma Kurnitz in Lost in Yonkers & Kate, the broken mother in Brighton Beach Memoirs & # 39; and & # 39; Broadway Bound & # 39 ;, which would come to endure the overflows of her husband, following the same betrayal of Simon's own family. We see their graininess, and then heartbreak, and then tenderness, framed by laughter.
Simon found his material from the inside, but he wrote just as brilliantly outside himself. He was the Michael Jordan of Broadway – with all the peculiarities, critics and limitations that go with it. But his achievement was unique, and the way he redefined the game – and the art form and business of the theater – is total. We will not see his weather 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 for 18 seasons in Theater J, Roth built the young DC- theater in 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.")
The opinions and opinions in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily correspond to the views of JTA or the parent company, 70 Faces Media.