How Neil Simon Remade the Maid
America's Top Playwright Steps Up to the Edge of Its Racial Gap in Order to See the Other Side
By David Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 7, 1997
"Back in the days when I was on 'Your Show of Shows,' we wrote a sketch about a quiz show called 'Break Your Brains.' Sid Caesar was the contestant and Carl Reiner was the host, and Carl says to Sid, 'You've reached the $50,000 pinnacle. We have one more question. If you wish to go on and you get the question right, you don't win any more money. But if you get it wrong, you lose everything. What do you want to do?' The audience is screaming and Sid says, 'I'll go on!' which is funny because he's going on for no other purpose than to see if he can answer the question."
Simon pauses to let the example sink in before continuing. "I know that I have reached the pinnacle of rewards. There's no more money anyone can pay me that I need. There are no awards they can give me that I haven't won. I have no reason to write another play except that I am alive and I like to do it."
So two months after his 70th birthday, Simon is once again at the typewriter, pounding out rewrites, then rewriting the rewrites for "Proposals," his 30th work for the theater. (It arrives at the Kennedy Center Oct. 1 for a four-week pre-Broadway run.) The tryout process makes him nervous, takes him away from life with his third wife, Diane, and disturbs his peace of mind. On the long drives to and from the Ahmanson Theater, where the show premiered last month, his back began acting up. Yet the prospect of not writing a play is somehow even more painful for him.
Right now, Simon is ensconced in the living room of the tidy duplex apartment in Westwood that serves as his office. On a coffee table fashioned out of wood stumps and glass sit a stack of manuscripts and a vase full of pens. There are at least 75 pens. Simon buys them obsessively. On the walls theater posters in various foreign languages and a half dozen Hirschfeld caricatures reflect his standing in the world of playwriting. The framed telegram is the one that informed him that he had just been awarded the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for drama for "Lost in Yonkers." Simon's youngest daughter, Bryn, jokes that he has turned the apartment into a shrine to himself.
"For the 25 years I've been living in California, I've been coming here to write, coming to write, coming to write. Five days a week. Every week. It doesn't get any easier, though. I can't think of any play that came easily. Maybe 'Laughter on the 23rd Floor' felt as if it did, but that was only because the audience started laughing from the minute the curtain went up. I was writing new lines for that one right up to the opening."
The audiences for "Proposals," which is set in the Pocono Mountains in the 1950s, haven't been laughing from the outset. A chronicle of nine befuddled souls trying to sort out their lives and romantic inclinations in the dappled woods, it represents Simon in a wistful, nostalgic mood. (He met his first wife, Joan, in the Poconos, when he was an aspiring comedy writer turning out revue sketches with his brother for a summer resort. Her death from cancer in 1973 was one of the seismic events in Simon's personal and creative life.) This is Simon's first play to be set outdoors, which may be why some early reviewers, watching the characters drift among the trees, have sensed in it a certain Chekhovian flavor.
But Simon also admits that "I didn't want it to be an out-and-out comedy or an out-and-out drama, and it's very difficult sliding back and forth from the laughs to the drama. I keep working to smooth it down."
The greatest departure from the world of Simon as it has hitherto been known, however, is the central character, Clemma, a fortyish black housekeeper and cook who serves as the play's narrator even as she struggles to bring a little order into her own romantic affairs. Simon has never written a major black role before — the cop in "Rumors" and the nurse in "The Sunshine Boys" are both minor figures and, arguably, not all that black. Clemma stands front and center, a shrewd and decidedly fresh presence in Simon's dramatic landscape, which has been mostly populated with urban Jewish neurotics.
The forces of political correctness (not to mention playwright August Wilson) would no doubt say that Simon is venturing into dangerous territory. The outspoken black maid is not exactly a character for our times, especially when she's springing from the mind of a white male playwright. "Very few white playwrights are writing black characters in any serious way. It's not expected in this day and age," acknowledges Emanuel Azenberg, who has produced all of Simon's plays for the past 25 years. "The schism is bigger now than it ever was, I think. At auditions, we had a sense that it might be dicey. But actress after actress came up to Neil to congratulate him for being accurate and also for being courageous."
Simon says he was fully aware of the pitfalls. "One of the reasons the play is set in the 1950s is because I didn't want to show a black as a domestic in today's world," he notes. "But I also wouldn't have written the play if I hadn't had Clemma as the focal point. She was the germ. Joan had a woman like Clemma in her life, a woman who raised her from a little girl, took care of the family and cooked. I started with the relationship between them.
"Clemma's story is totally made up. I just knew I had to show the dark side of her, as well as the loving side, if she was going to be a real human being. As I went along, I found out I knew a lot more about the character than I suspected. That happens. Like Diana and Sidney Nichols in 'California Suite.' I'm not gay or bisexual. Yet when people saw those characters, they wanted to know how I knew them so well. I said, 'I just do.' Stuff comes to you through osmosis."
Simon realizes that the explanation is frustratingly vague. He shifts in his chair, winces, although that may just be from a back spasm, and tries again. "I used to play tennis at Sidney Poitier's house. Every Saturday morning, there would be 10 guys — nine blacks and me. Their humor and the way they talked to each other was so much freer than white people for the most part. Funnier and cooler. I'm envious of that looseness, that openness. So this play was actually kind of liberating for me. It's not like I could have written a whole lot of black people. But I was pretty certain I could get Clemma right."
He reflects for a moment, then has an afterthought. "Although I wrote Lewis, Clemma's husband in the play, and I think he's pretty good, too."
Getting to Know Clemma
L. Scott Caldwell, who ran off with the notices here for her performance as Clemma, once vowed that she would never play a maid. As a child growing up in Chicago, she had spent countless hours in the neighborhood movie house, wanting very much to be Joan Crawford or Loretta Young. "There were maids in quite a number of those movies — Hattie McDaniel and Louise Beavers and a couple of others," she remembers shortly before a performance at the Ahmanson. "They were all of a certain ilk-heavyset, very dark women, often wisecrackers, who didn't have a life other than servicing Missy. I didn't identify with them at all. I wanted to be the heroine."
Consequently, when her agent told last year that Neil Simon was looking for an actress to play a maid in "Proposals," Caldwell replied crisply that she wasn't interested. She had risen to prominence through the Negro Ensemble Company and won a Tony in 1988 for her featured performance in Wilson's "Joe Turner's Come and Gone." And she wasn't about to take a step backward.
"My agent said, 'Maybe you should read it anyway,'" she continues. "I said, 'Well, I'll read it, but there's no way I'm going to do it.'" The script was messengered to her home in L.A., and Caldwell opened to the first page, a description of the woodsy setting and the character who appears out of the mists and starts conversing directly with the audience.
"She was described as an African American woman in her forties with a ribbon in her hair. The detail of the ribbon touched me," Caldwell says. "So I turned the page and read on. Clemma was drawn with so much love that I began to feel I hadn't seen this character before. Neil seemed to be interested in who she was, not just who she was in relationship to the people she works for. And I thought, 'I don't have to do Aunt Jemima. This is a fully dimensional person.'"
In the play's most potent scene, Clemma confronts the husband (Mel Winkler) who left her seven years earlier and now has turned up, unannounced, expecting to resume their marriage. Caldwell gets to draw on a whole range of emotions from vindictiveness to hurt, compassion to bewilderment. "I think Neil was very nervous about the scene," she says. "But he has a good ear. I think he's close enough, as close as anyone can be. Even a black playwright who doesn't have a good ear can write false. Of course, when you're so prolific with jokes, you can offend without meaning to. But because he has such a commitment to the role, I feel free to tell him when I'm not comfortable with a line." That, she notes pointedly, is a luxury Hattie McDaniel never enjoyed.
Caldwell's father worked as a chauffeur and her mother as a maid, which explains some of her strong feelings toward the character in "Proposals." "My mother is a very beautiful, dignified woman," she says gravely. "She has Alzheimer's now, but you could always feel her spirit in a room. She came to see me in the play the other night, probably the last time she'll see me on a stage. She laughed. I don't know how much she understood. But I hope I'm infusing Clemma with her kind spirit. For a long time I didn't want anybody to know my mother was a maid. It was a shame-based position I had. But my mother did that kind of work so that I can do this kind of work. I have a very nice life because her life wasn't so great."
Not Yet Closing Time
Simon doesn't look 70 and claims he doesn't feel it. The sun has burnished his face, and the deep creases in his forehead can be attributed partly at least to the pressures of a tryout and the daunting work of whittling away at a play that initially ran more than three hours. Yet there has always been a dark streak in Neil Simon's temperament and he can't help observing, "Just the number is like a major signpost, and it says, 'Closing time is coming soon.'"
Those who know Simon well aren't surprised by the pessimism, which surfaces whenever he is in the throes of a new play. "It's like the birth of a child for him," says Azenberg. "Because he's written so many plays, people assume his typewriter types on automatic pilot. They don't assume that he has a deep emotional commitment to each one. And he does."
"By closing time, I don't necessarily mean death," Simon elaborates. "Who knows what condition I'll be in at 75? But I'm in good shape now. The blood pressure problem I've had all my life is under control. My weight is good. I exercise. I'm really talking about two different closing times. One: How much longer can I do this? And two: How much longer do I want to do this? The latter is something I've never dealt with before. In the past, as soon as one play was finished, I sat right down and wrote the next one. I'm not doing that now."
He is, however, well into his second volume of memoirs, "The Play Goes On," which picks up where the first ended, the untimely death of Joan. And shooting has just finished on "The Odd Couple II," a sequel to what remains his best-known work. Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon are reprising their film roles as Oscar Madison and Felix Unger. Thirty-one years later, Oscar is semi-retired in Florida, and most of his poker buddies are old women. Felix, for his part, does charity work in a New York hospital, writing letters for the patients. "When their respective children decide to get married in California," Simon says, "they both fly out, meet at the airport, rent a budget car, and turmoil ensues from that moment on until they reach the wedding at the end of the film. These are not two people who have grown. As Felix says in the original 'Odd Couple,' 'We are what we are.'"
He chuckles for the first time all morning, shedding the air of preoccupation that has been hugging him like a tight suit of clothes.
Suddenly another "closing time" occurs to him-that of Broadway itself, once Neil Simon's favorite street and preferred address. "There are-what?-only two plays and a one-man show on Broadway now," he points out. "But musicals are done just because they're musicals. What we face with 'Proposals' — even if we're terrific and audiences love us — is 'Ragtime' and 'The Lion King' and Paul Simon's new musical ['The Capeman']. There are about 10 of them lined up. You can only sell so many tickets on Broadway, and the last thing people buy is a play. The world has changed. So the end of my career is in sight maybe."
Does he really believe that? Or is it merely that Neil Simon has a new $1.6 million play on the road and the prospect of going up before the critics always makes him a little crazy? He could have taken his winnings and retired royally years ago but hasn't. Like that game show contestant he dreamed up at the start of his career, he seems to have an abiding need to keep on keeping on.
He volunteers another comparison. "If I were going now with a 21-year-old girl, people would say, 'That's disgusting. You shouldn't be doing that at your age. It's unnatural.' In a sense, I almost feel that play-writing is the 21-year-old girl."
The man, you'll notice, said "almost."
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company