I remember working on my first Neil Simon scene in drama class in high school.
I found the script and showed it to my scene partner and we were both excited to do it. I believe the scene was from Plaza Suite, with the mother and father of the bride trying desperately to get their daughter to unlock the door, come out of the bathroom, go downstairs and get married.
As with most Simon plays, the dialogue is rhythmic and fast with jokes landing and then returning later in the scene in Simon’s skillful way. I read an interview with Simon once in which he discussed his writing always using a yellow legal pad and pen. He said that the longer paper allowed him to scan over it to see the beats, the rhythm, in an almost musical way. This rhythm and patter to his dialogue was a signature. He was a master of dialogue.
I would assume that so many of us who came into the theatre as an actor or director were strongly influenced by Simon. I’ve worked on other scenes of his from high school to graduate school. I’ve delighted in productions of his work from boisterous comedies to his semi auto-biographical dramas, the Eugene Trilogy.
There’s a term that some writers use when referring to writing that is so good actors can’t really screw it up… “actor proof.” I’d say that his work may have helped to define that term. While nothing is ever completely actor proof, his writing was so solid, so pulsing with humor and humanity, that just reading it on the page can be affecting to those listening. So when performed by truly talented actors, his dialogue and stories can soar off the stage. They are buoyant, musical, with strong threads of truth running through the hysterical scenes. The characters are unique, individual, and so so fun to perform.
Some theatre people now are tempted to brush aside Neil Simon’s work as cliche, or outdated, or too familiar, similar to plays by Agatha Christie and others. Because many of his works are older and have been performed so many times they consider them less worthy of consideration and think they’ll be less challenging to work on and therefore less enjoyable. I would say that the works of Neil Simon hold a key to a certain style of comedy that can be very valuable for actors and directors to work on and develop the certain skills they require. The experiences I’ve had discovering his wonderful characters and working on the style and speed of delivery of his dialogue was remarkably valuable. I still use those skills regularly when working on comedies today.
Thank you Mr. Simon for your immense contribution to the cannon of contemporary American theatre, and to the skills of the actor and director. Your work, and its influence, will continue for generations to come.
Neil Simon – July 4, 1927 – Aug 26, 2018
Pulitzer Prize for drama 1991
Patrick Spike is the Theatre Community Liaison, system expert, and one of the original architects of the Arts People software system, with over 30 years in performing arts creation and administration. www.patrickspike.com