Thursday, October 22, 2009

Don't Forget Private Epstein

David Edelstein makes some good points about Neil Simon, his popularity and his craft in a New York Magazine article.

Here he talks about how Simon's dialogue, full of kvetching and always containing throwaway one-liners, sometimes all but defeated his characters and the actors playing them.

Christopher Walken’s drill sergeant in the film of Biloxi Blues is a rare instance of an actor’s meeting Simon’s specifications and yet making the role his own. A trained stage actor, Walken keeps to the meter, but he’s Walken—he elongates words, steals beats from the end of one line and adds them to the next, and injects creepy little laughs at his own sadistic turns of phrase. The aforementioned Bella was Simon’s most compelling character (especially as played by Mercedes Ruehl in the stage and screen versions of Lost in Yonkers) precisely because her rhythms are all messed up, because there’s a disconnect between her thoughts and words that’s unprecedented in Simon’s work.

I logged onto the New York article to suggest another of Simon's compelling characters. Private Arnold Epstein in Biloxi Blues.

Private Epstein is certainly as compelling, if not more so than Bella. In fact, he contains so many wonderful and enigmatic contradictions and displays such a mysterious wisdom in his actions that he almost seems like an interloper from somewhere outside the Simon universe. (On loan from another play, so to speak.)

The masterstroke of providing Eugene Jerome, (the protagonist) with the benevolent, yet harsh twin in Arnold, gives the play a few moments of transcendence that I am not sure Mr. Simon ever matched, before or after. (Except, as Mr. Edelstein points out, in Lost in Yonkers.)

To Private Jerome, Epstein is familiar and alien; an ally and a liability; academic and earthly, scolding and reassuring.

When I went to comment, I saw that Barry Miller, the person who originated the role of Arnold Epstein on Broadway had left a comment on Mr. Edelstein's article.

I wrote a little about Simon's career and craft over a year ago.

1 comment:

Thomas Garvey said...

Something tells me at least a few of Simon's plays will last, whatever his enemies in the culture war may say. Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, Last of the Red Hot Lovers, Biloxi Blues, and Lost in Yonkers probably aren't going away. That's five minor classics. Albee's probably only got three or four, just btw, if anyone's keeping score, and several "major" playwrights have less.