The theater community lost a giant on Aug. 26 as Jewish playwright Neil Simon passed away at 91 from complications of pneumonia.
“Neil Simon – gone! A loss 4 the entire entertainment industry,” tweeted Jewish actor Harvey Fierstein. “He could write a joke that would make you laugh, define the character, the situation, and even the world’s problems. First time I met him he looked at me and said, ‘Where the hell did they find you?’ What a gent.”
“Neil Simon was a clutch hitter,” tweeted Mel Brooks. “When we needed the punchline on Your Show of Shows he delivered. He also delivered 32 plays and over 20 movies. He was one of the sweetest & least jealous writers you could ever work with. For all who knew him, this is a truly sad day.”
But Simon’s trademark humor and classic works, from Lost in Yonkers to The Odd Couple and Sweet Charity and many more on both stage and screen, will live on.
The playwright won four Tony Awards, the Pulitzer Prize, Kennedy Center honors and, in 1983, had a Broadway theater named after him when the Alvin was renamed the Neil Simon Theatre.
His particular brand of comedy was certainly linked to his Jewish background.
In The New York Times obituary, Charles Isherwood wrote of the work of both Simon and Woody Allen: “Together they helped make the comedy of urban neurosis — distinctly Jewish-inflected — as American as the homespun humor of Leave It to Beaver.”
His impact in theater, both plays and musicals, and the weight of his loss was felt locally, too — even more so in the Jewish community.
He had plenty of area connections. His Barefoot in the Park starring Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley (the film adaptation starred Jane Fonda) premiered at Bucks County Playhouse and went on to Broadway in 1963. The playhouse has since produced many of his other works.
Simon was an honorary member of the Walnut Street Theatre, where many of his plays have been staged over the years.
Frank Ferrante has worked with a dozen of Simon’s works, both in acting and directing, which he did frequently at the Walnut. At the theater in the early 2000s, he directed the entirety of “The Eugene Trilogy,” which were Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound, with one play featured in three consecutive seasons with the same actors.
“I loved how honest and open Mr. Simon is,” Ferrante said, “and how he’s able to mine the humor from the sadness of our lives. … He’s a beautiful, moving storyteller who is able to tell stories while making us laugh through tears.”
His first introduction to Simon was through his films, but as an actor and director, Ferrante was most influenced by Simon’s plays and the humor found within the characters and lines.
“I don’t think there has been a playwright who has conjured more laughter from the world than Neil Simon and I can’t imagine a better legacy than that.”
In 2017, Ferrante directed the Walnut’s production of Laughter on the 23rd Floor, a comedy (of course) that takes the audience inside the writers’ room of a 1950s TV variety show starring comedian Max Prince, a character based on Sid Caesar and originally played on Broadway by Nathan Lane.
Leah Walton, who is Jewish, played Carol, a character based on Lucille Kallen and Selma Diamond, two women known for being some of the few (if not only) women in the writing room of some of Caesar’s shows.
The play, she noted in an interview at the time, inherently touched on many Jewish themes, and her character — who was also Jewish — allowed her to explore that identity on stage.
“It’s about the idea of being a part of the ensemble,” she said, “that even though she is an ‘other’ as being a woman, she belongs because she’s a Jew, and even though Brian [a character based on Tony Webster] is a man, he does not belong in the way that he is a Catholic. So she finds her way of fitting in and it is through humor and her Jewish identity.”
Aspiring actors and comedians owe Simon a “debt of gratitude,” Sara Garonzik said.
“Neil Simon was one of the great tent poles of 20th-century American theater,” said Garonzik, former producing artistic director of Philadelphia Theatre Co. “Every playwright, sketch artist and comedian who aspires to make us laugh owes him a debt of gratitude. As a matter of fact, where would comedy be without that first group of neurotic, Jewish, post-war funny men who changed our culture?”
Executive Director of Theatre Philadelphia Leigh Goldenberg fondly reflected on the time she played Bella in Lost in Yonkers in high school.
She pinpointed two ingredients of Simon’s writing prowess that will stand the test of time.
“The fact that he told very distinctly American Jewish stories is part of his legacy,” she noted, “and the way he was able to combine family histories and comedy; those are the things I think he definitely contributed to the American theater landscape.”
Tony Braithwaite considers Simon his favorite playwright. He’s been in 11 Simon works.
The artistic director of Act II Playhouse in Ambler, he serves as director of the theater’s current production of Biloxi Blues, fittingly a Simon work that was also autobiographical.
“He just ‘gets us’ as human beings,” Braithwaite wrote in an email. “Especially those of us who have flaws, veer toward the neurotic and use humor as a coping mechanism (and that’s a very large group of people!). Long before Jerry Seinfeld did a show ‘about nothing,’ America had the wit and pathos of Mr. Simon doing the same thing dozens of times.”
Simon’s work was not immune to criticism, Braith-waite noted.
Some critics disdained Simon’s work, which Brathwaite wrote happens often with writers, directors and actors who “automatically elicit an unfair bias because they ‘merely’ create comedy.”
He cited the late theater critic Walter Kerr, who once said, “Whenever a playwright manages to be hilariously funny all night long … he is in immediate danger of being condescended to.”
“But, as usual,” Braithwaite said, “Mr. Simon will have the last laugh here, because being funny and deeply human are not easy for any writer. And as such I predict Felix and Oscar [of The Odd Couple], and Eugene Jerome [of Biloxi], and The Goodbye Girl, and so many more of his creations will be touching hearts and tickling funny bones for centuries to come.”