It is perhaps an index to the current crisis in American playwrighting that Neil Simon is taken seriously at all. Simon’s clockwork comedies come complete with show-stopping punchlines and rim shots, and are as mechanical and soulless as drama gets.
Still, they are wildly popular. And just days ago, someone – was it Time magazine? – called his new play, Broadway Bound, the best American play of the decade.
I haven’t seen the new play, of course. I know it only as the third leg of his continuing autobiographical series. It may well be a masterpiece.
In that case, it bears no relation to Brighton Beach Memoirs, the first play in the series, which is now adapted (by Simon) as a movie. Brighton Beach, a portrait of the artist as a young nerd, follows an adolescent would-be writer growing up in Brooklyn in the late 1930s. Simon’s own family, fictionalized, is depicted.
When the play opened a few years ago (followed by Biloxi Blues and now Broadway), critics announced that Simon was going back to his roots for the deepest work of his career.
Maybe he did. But the movie of Brighton Beach Memoirs is still a shuck. It’s just a batch of gags strung together, placed in the mouths of stereotypical characters.
The Neil Simon character, called Eugene (Jonathan Silverman, in the role that Matthew Broderick played onstage), is obsessively interested in sex. Baseball too, but to a lesser extent. He leafs through National Geographic and fantasizes about his svelte cousin taking a shower.
His family struggles through some predictable crises, which all get handily resolved. Gene Saks, who also directed the stage plays, lets the material play out in its jokey fashion. I don’t know who was responsible for casting Blythe Danner and Judith Ivey as, respectively, Simon’s mother and widowed aunt. Their white-bread looks in roles heavily shaded for Jewishness just adds to the artificiality of the affair. Bob Dishy, as the exhausted father, fares rather better.
Sure, a few of Simon’s lines are funny. If you throw enough at the wall, some of it is going to stick. He even resorts to that most cherished of vaudeville shticks, the spit take.
Brighton Beach Memoirs may be followed to the screen by its sequels. In which case, be prepared for a torrent of Simon Sez.
First published in The Herald, December 25, 1986
You understand, I love a good spit take. At this point I think I was suffering from Simon exhaustion, and didn’t have much patience for this kind of ancient comedy. The next installment in the trilogy, Biloxi Blues, got a considerable upgrade, with Matthew Broderick and Mike Nichols signing on. The third chapter, Broadway Bound, had Corey Parker as Eugene and Jonathan Silverman as his brother. (Ask me sometime about hanging out with Neil Simon’s brother, Danny, when he came to give a comedy-writing seminar in Seattle in the ’80s.)