Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Manufactured Products

I am not a fan of Neil Simon plays.

The popular appeal of Simon’s “pure” comedies, such as “The Odd Couple” and “The Sunshine Boys”, is totally beyond my comprehension. I find the Simon comedies to be unfunny, unamusing, uninteresting and unappealing. They are nothing more than old-fashioned Borscht-Belt comedy skits stretched into full-length plays.

Simon’s “serious” plays I can tolerate, but without much enthusiasm. (I have never seen a staging of “Broadway Bound”.) They are manufactured products, lacking three-dimensional characters and genuine drama.

“Brighton Beach Memoirs” is, I believe, Simon’s finest piece of work. It is the only Simon play that has been produced widely around the world—and the only Simon play likely to be staged fifty years from now. There is something undeniably touching about the story of two struggling multi-generational Jewish families forced to share a Depression-era household in late-1930s Brooklyn while war clouds gather in Europe and begin to impact American lives.

“Biloxi Blues” is well-crafted, but its subject matter is so well-trodden—a boy goes off to the army during World War II and is forced to become a man—that a performance of the play is difficult to endure: the story had already been told in a thousand movies and a thousand television programs before Simon got to the material.

“Lost In Yonkers” is not as strong as “Brighton Beach Memoirs” or “Biloxi Blues”—but at its center is a gripping conflict between mother and daughter, a gripping conflict that sets “Lost In Yonkers” apart from any other Simon work.

That said, there is much that is wrong with “Lost In Yonkers”.

The character of the married daughter with respiratory problems is barren—and hokey. The character should have been omitted from the play, or the character should have remained offstage, unseen; references to her existence would have sufficed.

The character of the son who has entered into a life of crime, and who is forced to hide in his mother’s apartment, was inserted into the play solely to provide laughs—a function identical to that of the two English girls in “The Odd Couple”. In both plays, the laughs induced by these extraneous characters have nothing to do with the play’s dramaturgy; all could be excised without affecting the thrust of the onstage proceedings. (Simon has admitted in a filmed interview that the two English girls in “The Odd Couple” were a desperate mechanism to keep the play afloat.)

The characters of the two young brothers placed into their grandmother’s care are under-written. There is nothing special or unique—or interesting—about these boys, in sharp contrast to the boys in “Brighton Beach Memoirs”, where the roles of both brothers are extremely well-written, and carry the play.

Perhaps most fatally, “Lost In Yonkers” contains too many dead spots. Minutes at a time, the play comes to a halt, without anything of interest occurring onstage; viewers become impatient, waiting for the playwright to propel the story forward.

As if to make up for these deficiencies, Simon has created perhaps his single finest character—and surely his only memorable female character—in the grandmother of “Lost In Yonkers”. A woman who has suffered a life of grief and hardship, the grandmother is rigid, forbidding, formidable—and yet she always tries to do the right thing, without ever seeking credit for herself, and she occasionally allows herself to show a sly and impish sense of humor. My favorite moment in the entire play is when the grandmother, wickedly, informs her two grandsons that the mattress on which they have been sleeping is where she stashes her money.

The character of the childlike, unmarried adult daughter is problematic throughout the play. One moment the audience is led to believe that she is borderline mentally retarded; the next moment, the audience is provided evidence that she is in full command of herself and her surroundings, capable of thoughtful, independent action. I do not believe that Simon fully came to terms with this character.

This shortcoming becomes most apparent during the great confrontation scene between mother and daughter near the end of the play. The confrontation erupts out of nowhere, and addresses issues never raised by the characters elsewhere in the play. The confrontation is both powerful and utterly unconvincing. It all-too-obviously was created to give the play a climax—and might as well have been inserted from another play by another dramatist, so false and incongruous is its effect. (The confrontation scene between the two adult sisters in “Brighton Beach Memoirs” is similarly contrived.)

For the play to work in performance, “Lost In Yonkers” must have compelling actors to portray the mother and daughter. If these two roles are well-cast and well-directed, the play will come across, despite its dead spots and other deficiencies. All other considerations become irrelevant.

On Friday night, my middle brother and Joshua and I attended a performance of “Lost In Yonkers” at Theater In The Round. The production held our attentions—which, in my eyes, made the production a success.

The actress portraying the grandmother was no Irene Worth, but she made it clear all evening why the other persons onstage were terrified of her, and afraid to challenge her in any meaningful way. She ruled the stage, as the character must.

The actress portraying the daughter was charming and daffy, and brought to life what must be a very difficult if not impossible part to play.

The other cast members were accomplished—and the actor portraying the son who had entered into a life of crime underplayed the part, for which I was grateful.

If I had one gripe about the Theater In The Round production, it was that the two actors cast as the young boys did not convince me for one second that they were brothers. They were all-too-clearly products of different families, sharing not a single trait or characteristic.

Simon is no longer the towering commercial figure of the Broadway stage. His eminence lasted for thirty years—from roughly 1960 until 1990—but he has not enjoyed a hit since “Lost In Yonkers”, which premiered in 1991. Productions of new Simon plays and revivals of old Simon plays, alike, have fared poorly at the New York box office the last twenty years. Over time, Simon’s work has become the near-exclusive province of regional theater and community theater. It is difficult today to comprehend the vast success his plays enjoyed in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

I have a theory why Simon plays have fallen from view.

Simon plays are, fundamentally, a recreation of early television. Every device in a Simon play is borrowed from the faded comedies and artificial dramas that defined the first decade of American network television. Simon plays possessed great appeal for audiences whose notions of entertainment had been derived from 1950s television—the plays, after all, were mere iterations of formulas and conventions already cherished by such audiences. The result was that Simon plays, for a period, acquired unprecedented levels of audience appreciation and acceptance.

Once such audiences began to disappear, Simon plays began to disappear, too. Their architecture is too obvious, their characters too one-note, their situations too formula-laden, their dialogue too filled with New Yorkese, their laugh lines too-little-disguised.

I do not think Simon plays will ever return to favor.

And I do not think they will be missed.

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