Theatre: Neil Simon's last laugh at the critics
Published 16/07/2011 | 05:00
Samuel Beckett isn't the most obvious influence on the American comic playwright Neil Simon. Nor is the absurdist Eugene Ionesco. Nor the great American tragedian Eugene O'Neill.
Yet these, along with the comedy writer George S Kaufman, were "the greats that I wanted to emulate", Simon has said.
"The problem was that I wanted to emulate them all at the same time, and often, all in the same play."
Simon, whose 1968 play Plaza Suite has just opened in Dun Laoghaire, is probably the most successful comedy writer on the modern American stage -- with audiences. But the critics have often been lukewarm.
Simon's humour comes from the drama, not from jokes. But the critics, he has said, often feel he is "being neither true to the comedy nor true to the drama".
The result is "the paradox of having a great many hits that critics did not praise".
It is, at least, a happy paradox. And it has hardly harmed his popularity with awards juries: he has one Pulitzer Prize, three Tony Awards, and another 14 Tony nominations to his credit.
Simon, now 84, started his career writing situation comedy for television, the classic Sergeant Bilko amongst those early assignments. Play writing didn't quite come naturally: his first play, Come Blow Your Horn, went through more than 20 drafts.
"There were very few blind alleys I missed," he has said. But when it was ready, it was funny -- very funny. An audience member died laughing -- literally -- on opening night (according to the New Yorker).
That was in 1961. Five years later, he had unprecedented success: four plays running on Broadway at the same time (among them his most famous, The Odd Couple).
In 1968, he bought a Broadway theatre, the Eugene O'Neill, to open his plays.
Though, with good reason, his output has slowed in recent years, he is still phenomenally popular: a recent New Yorker profile calculated that, not including Broadway, his plays made about $7m at the US box office, and a further $10m internationally.
Plaza Suite is not, in fact, a play -- it is three of them. He wrote the first act, set in a honeymoon suite at the Plaza Hotel, about a wife who rents it hoping to rekindle her relationship with her husband by returning to the scene of their honeymoon.
Simon got to the end of the act and realised, "I don't want to know any more."
So he turned his idea for a full-length play into three one-act plays, all set in the same suite.
Unusually for comedy, he writes without knowing where he's going -- he has no map.
"That method takes either insanity or egocentricity -- or a great deal of confidence," he has said (in a revealing, long interview with The Paris Review, available at www.theparisreview.org).
"It's like building a bridge over water without knowing if there's land on the other side."
The resolution -- like the comedy along the way -- comes from his characters, and the conflict that drives them.
"I try to write comedy the way dramatists write plays -- writing from the characters out, internally."
When he started writing plays, he was warned not to mix comedy with drama.
"But my theory was, if it's mixed in life, why can't you do it in a play?"
If Simon was thus a gentle pioneer, something similar might be said of Rough Magic, the company that is staging Plaza Suite at the Pavilion, Dun Laoghaire (till July 30; see www.paviliontheatre.ie).
Last year, the company dipped its toes in commercial waters, bringing Stockard Channing to the Gaiety to star in The Importance of Being Earnest.
This year, they took the seemingly radical step of choosing a play for a suburban theatre according to what the local audience might want to see.
Play, location and audience seem well-matched: a middle-class comedy for a summer run by the seaside on the Dublin Southside.
If is succeeds, Rough Magic may have stumbled on a new take on an old formula.
A little like Neil Simon.