Beat JENeration #006: Neil Simon

Being raised in Southern California by New Yorkers used to make me feel like a bit of an immigrant at times. While both my parents had been third-generation Americans themselves, there was still a lingering feeling of Old World from their Italian & Croatian roots for sure, but what seemed to make our family feel like “the other” had more to do with their East Coastness. The accents, the food, the urban neurosis, the constant bi-polar alternating of hyperbolic praise and grumbling pessimism, and the way they were just loud — OMG, at a time in life where you just want to blend in and disappear it was embarrassing. I cringe to admit it now, but I was jealous of all the vanilla families that looked like the ones on TV.  

Earlier this week, I had a conversation with a friend about Crazy Rich Asians and how even if you don’t think you are the kind of person to care that a character looks like you, when you actually see it, you realize how it important it is. As your very basic white girl, I can’t really understand this on personal level, though on a totally superficial I know how much characters have resonated with me when I identify a piece of me in them. Case in point, you can never say a bad word about Kelly Rippa in my presence because when Hayley Vaughn walked into Pine Valley for Thanksgiving in 1990 looking all suburban death rock fantastic, I saw myself in a character on All My Children (or any of my soaps) for the first time. And with Neil Simon on my brain due to his passing on Sunday, I realized that I was probably such a fan of his work initially because its where I first saw a family that mirrored my own.

It might be notable to mention that I’m not Jewish, but I also was never a 15 year-old boy, and was too young to experience the brink of World War II, but nonetheless I saw something of myself in Eugene Jerome, the main character in “Brighton Beach Memoirs.”  Things may suck, but Eugene’s family (in the whole semi-autobiographical trilogy) along with most of the other characters in Simon’s work see the wisps of humor in their living situations and family conflicts. Their range of emotion — anger, desperation, love — created an emotional ebb and flow that I knew intimately. 

I came to the actual Neil Simon plays late — probably toward the end of high school, so my main connection to his writing would be the movies I grew up with. The Out-of-Towners, Only When I Laugh, The Odd Couple, Barefoot in the Park, Plaza Suite, and California Suite were all movies that I couldn’t flip past if they showed up on cable. I was, and very much still am, a sucker for antagonistic couples with razor-sharp one-liners.  But Seems Like Old Times is the best in my opinion. If you were alive in the 1980’s and didn’t just mentally quote a line from that movie, I don’t think we can be friends — I sure as hell don’t trust you. Goldie Hawn, Chevy Chase, and Charles Grodin are comedic geniuses for sure, but it’s the words that have always rocked my world on this one.

While theatre critics would bash Simon for his penchant to shove away an intense moment or feeling with a series of comedic set ups and punchlines, I found comfort in this brand of drama meets comedy. Simon’s character’s could make you feel for them without emotion being dragged across the stage in slow motion. But I don’t think it’s any coincidence that “Lost in Yonkers” which expanded on darker emotional plot points, racked up the most awards. Critics love a deeply dysfunctional family and so, of course they rallied around the anguish and honesty.  But for me, what I loved about “Lost in Yonkers” were the moments of levity punctuating the play’s dramatic truths. This might not be fashionable in contemporary theatre, but I personally feel like the wisecracking is timeless.  I say, a Family drama that doesn’t make you want to kill yourself at the end is always en vogue.

I know that there is so much more I could write about Neil Simon that would give the man the praise he deserves. He was the most successful playwright in Broadway history with around 9,000 performances and countless millions in ticket sales. In total he wrote 32 plays (17 were bonafide hits) — that’s like Shakespeare-level prolific (if Shakespeare did indeed write all of his 37 plays). He’s such an icon that a Broadway theater was named after him while he was still alive! But alas, I’m sure someone else has said it better in one of his many obits. But what I can do in this man’s honor is to finally forgive him for insulting the goddess Mary Tyler Moore and to  make Aurora’s Chicken Pepperoni this weekend.