Thursday, April 03, 2008

Bad Habit Productions last show was David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow. I heard good things about the show, but didn't catch it myself. Their current show is a play by Neil Simon, and I will try to see it. Because, well, as much as we complain about Simon, we really don't see his work that much anymore, at least not on stage.

In 1963 Barefoot in the Park opened on Broadway at the Biltmore Theatre and rocketed the careers of Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley. Director Mike Nichols was instrumental in the process.

The play was a smash hit, but does not represent the Broadway of that time so accurately as some think.
Barefoot, one should remember, opened after the Broadway success of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf . And the tenants replacing Barefoot at the Biltmore were, respectively, Joe Orton's Loot and the Broadway transfer of Hair.
Really, as Ben Brantley pointed out in a review of the recent Broadway revival in 2006, Neil Simon was ressurrecting a kind of archetype of the spirited woman that existed in the 40's and 50's, (and then put just enough of a twist on it to make way for the kooky careers of the Goldie Hawn types.)

People often call it an artifact of a different age, but Barefoot was almost an artifact at the time it was first produced. Almost.

Simon wasn't a dumb or oblivious man, and Barefoot has the edge about social instutions that is required of comedy. The problem is that Simon was never after the jugular like some of the best comedic dramatists throughout history. Because he didn't have that kind of fire, sometimes things drift into critical assessment of his work that those masters left in the dust.

For instance, you would never hear people leaving The Importance of Being Earnest saying, "it just seems strange that those people weren't living together before they were married," or, "they obviously have nothing in common, it so isn't going to work out in the long run."

A couple of years earlier, Albee had given audiences Nick and Honey as a young married couple and Simon follows up with... Corrie and Paul. It wasn't that Simon is not a thinker or that he didn't have a social focus, it was that he was staying in first gear while everybody else was racing past him.

The interesting work from Simon seemed to come later in his career. About 30 years too late some would say, (and way too little most would say.) Even at this he seemed to be lagging way behind the theatre and still a bit behind the society.

In the 1992 review of Jake's Women, Frank Rich said this:

Neil Simon can never be socially devastating, because, well, he never was. And, unlike truly great comedies, with Neil Simon you get the feeling when the play ends that he really believes in his endings as the actual solution to the problems.

But Neil Simon can be funny, laugh-out-loud funny for long stretches. But a director has to understand the comedy. Perhaps Ben Brantley said it best, (I hate to keep quoting him, but he remains an articulate observer of why Simon was so damn successful,) when reviewing the Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick version of The Odd Couple:

As this set-to-a-metronome production, directed by Joe Mantello,
demonstrates with such clarity, the comic languages of "The Producers" and "The Odd Couple" are not the same.
The humor of "The Odd Couple" is rooted in watching ordinary guys, equipped with an extraordinary arsenal of zingers, turn
each other into irreconcilable caricatures of themselves, the way people do in bad marriages.
The characters in "The Producers" are stylishly drawn cartoons, shaped by the performers' delighted awareness of belonging to the intoxicating, heightened reality of musical comedy.

A similar self-consciousness informs Mr. Lane's and Mr. Broderick's
attitudes in "The Odd Couple," which automatically creates a
distance between them and the men they are playing. Their performances are framed in quotation marks. Mr. Lane is "doing" macho and slovenly; Mr. Broderick is "doing" repressed and anal-retentive. That's different from being slovenly or anal-retentive. And the gap between doing and being fatally exposes the cogs and
gears of Mr. Simon's impeccably assembled comic clockwork.

The highlight is mine. Part of why Simon revivals are tricky though, is that what was once an "extraordinary arsenal of zingers" may not be so potent anymore. But the raw basics of human interaction are still there. Mike Nichols, the original director of both Barefoot and The Odd Couple deeply understood this. Simon, in his autobiography, recounts how Barefoot was not going so well in rehearsals. It wasn't funny. Nichols told Redford and Ashley that the key to the comedy was that Corrie and Paul are not aware that this is a comedy. To them, "This is King Lear!" The rest, for better (Neil Simon's career and the audience's delight,) or worse (the attendant effects on the American theatre,) is history.

Nichols went on to direct the film version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? And directed the premiere of David Rabe's Streamers.

Thus endeth probably the longest post about Neil Simon you will read in the blogosphere ever.

Bad Habit Productions will be performing Barefoot in the Park this weekend at the Piano Factory. Meanwhile, Edward Albee's Three Tall Women, and A Delicate Balance will be playing at the Lyric and the Merrimack Rep.

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