Wednesday, March 27, 2013

This Day in Theater History (Simon’s ‘Brighton Beach Memoirs’ Opens)

March 27, 1983—With Brighton Beach Memoirs, which premiered at the Alvin Theatre, Neil Simon began what might be thought of as his “BB Trilogy” or "Eugene Trilogy"—a trio of plays that excavated his past not only for the belly laughs he was long famous for, but also for lacerating truths few had noticed as he went from success to success. This latest comedy ran for nearly 1,300 performances, earned him perhaps the most critical acclaim he had known to date, and made a star of the actor playing his adolescent alter ego, Matthew Broderick.
You can make a case—as I’m about to do—that the high point of Simon‘s career began with this play. Reverses in his personal life (divorce from actress Marsha Mason, followed by two marriages and divorces from the same woman, Dianne Lander-Simon, followed by another to her by the millennium!), might have heightened his ability to render marital tensions onstage with honesty and realism. In the two plays that immediately followed, Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound, he continued to chart the path to adulthood of his youthful stand-in, Eugene Morris Jerome. A career climax would surely have been his Pulitzer Prize for another play in this increasingly rueful retrospective decade, Lost in Yonkers (1991).

Few in the early Sixties, when “Doc” Simon first conquered Broadway with Come Blow Your Horn (1961), would have predicted this critical approbation, anymore than film critics could have foreseen that “The Man With No Name” of spaghetti Western fame, Clint Eastwood, would become one of the most honored and acclaimed filmmakers of his time. In both cases, the new-found critical esteem came after these two figures cast a more self-critical eye on their lives and legacies. Eastwood’s came by reconsidering, in the Oscar-winning Unforgiven and the more recent Gran Torino, the cost of the violence with which he was associated as a young actor. Simon’s came by showing how his bent toward comedy developed in a Jewish family battling dire poverty, anti-Semitism—and, sometimes, each other—in their Brooklyn home.

At one point, in the 1966-67 season, Simon had four plays running simultaneously on Broadway: Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, Sweet Charity and The Star Spangled Girl. Just before Brighton Beach Memoirs, he ran into something of a dry spell, with three plays tanking, one right after another: I Ought to Be in Pictures, Fools and a revised version of Little Me.

With his trio of autobiographical memory plays, however, Simon went a long way toward dispelling the notion that he was simply a gag writer. Now, the comparisons evoked by these memory plays were to Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill (in Ah,Wilderness!). 

The greatest recognition of Simon as perhaps the greatest hitmaker of all time among Broadway playwrights came only three months into the run of Brighton Beach Memoirs, when the Alvin Theatre was renamed the Neil Simon Theatre in his honor. This venue, under its new name, also witnessed the premiere of his Biloxi Blues and Jake's Women.

The last Simon play to open on Broadway was 45 Seconds to Broadway, back in 2001. If you don’t remember it, don’t feel badly—it didn’t last much more than 45 seconds (73 performances, if you insist on counting).

Contemporary Broadway has claimed its greatest victim in Simon, a fact underscored in 2009, when, despite fairly good reviews, a revival of Brighton Beach Memoirs tanked and Broadway Bound never had a chance to get off the ground. What ended up dooming the plays was not changing audience expectations about comedy, nor even the reportedly fractious atmosphere behind the scenes at this production, but rather the economics of the Broadway scene that had repeatedly strangled nearly all new non-musicals mounted without a star as an insurance policy, according to a blog post by the Los Angeles Times’ James C. Taylor.

(The accompanying photo, taken by the New York World Telegram and Sun’s Al Ravenna in 1966, shows Neil Simon sitting on a windowsill at home reviewing a script of play he wrote. The image is now part of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection.)

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