WILL "CHAPTER TWO," Neil Simon's latest comedy hit, finally bring one of those best-play awards to the man whose works have totalled roughly 8,620 Broadway performances in the past 17 years?
No one else has even approached that phenomenal record. In the Pulitzer-Drama Critics-Tony sweepstakes, Simon did once win a best-author Tony, in 1965 for "The Odd Couple." But that year's best-play Tony went to Frank Gilroy's "The Subject Was Roses." That's like clipping a man's jaw while shaking his hand.
Why has simon been treated so cavalierly? Is is the ridiculous notion that comedy is easier to write than drama? Is it because he writes of ordinary people in ordinary situations, that his mind is not on Big Problems? Is it because he doesn't lecture us about jails, dope addiction or petty thievery -- themes that have brought others best-play awards?
In any event, "Chapter Two," at New York's Imperial Theater, is being taken seriously by some pundits. The subject is a man's grief over the death of a beloved wife, and the comments on the play seem to be those reserved for an Important Topic. Oddly, though, the comments have ignored two striking features of the play:
The brothers in "Chapter Two" are virtually the same pair who were introduced to Broadway in 1961 in Simon's "Come Blow Your Horn." They are older now, more sophisticated and more successful, but their relationship is still close and concerned.
And also, the widower's second wife, around whose spirited determination "Chapter Two" evolves, is the first well-rounded, fully human of Simon's female characters. Playing her, Anita Gillette gives the most arresting of the play's well-acted performances. The fraternal relationship can be traced through all of Simon's most successful plays, which center on male characters. Simon admits he understands men better than women. After the brothers of "Horn" fled the parental nest, he tackled the painful adjustments of a bridegroom in the first few days of marriage in "Barefoot in the Park."
In the next, "The Odd Couple," he showed us two very different divorced men living together to ease alimony payments. He reflected brilliantly on why their marriages had failed, why their wives could not bear their contrasted habits of slovenliness and neatness one more week.
Next Simon settled on middle age, giving us, in "The Last of the Red Hot Lovers," a roly-poly restauranteur fretting that he had missed all the extramarital fun. In "The Prisoner of Second Avenue," he pictured the suddenly unemployed, middle-aged man, worried about the neighborhood and visibly having a physical breakdown.
Old age occupied him in "The Sunshine Boys," with two vaudevillians, once headliners, now retired, trying to reconcile but incapable of doing so because age had taught them nothing.
These themes of ordinary men may not be tragic but they are certainly sad. But Simon has insisted on presenting them in comic form. This apparently contradictory attitude probably has contributed to the critical view that Simon is a lightweight. Perversely, the ticket-buying public has made him a box-office heavyweight. For the public knows well enough that life is rough, It doesn't need to be told. What it seeks are clues for how to survive Laughter helps.
The public seems to see itself mirrored more accurately by Simon than by any other working playwright. Literally scores of writers have had hosannahs from the critics who kept sniffing that Simon was merely fast with the jokes. Most of those discoveries have yet to come up with a second or third play.
Writers are taught to write what they know simon at his most successful has been autobiographical. Born and raised in New York, Simon ended his formal education at DeWitt Clinton High. He followed his older brother, Danny, into writing for radio and TV, a close relationship mirrored in the earlier plays.
"Chapter Two" is as openly autobiographical. Simon's own first wife, a dancer named Joan by whom he had two daughters, was the keeper of coffee and danish when some of the Simon hits tried out in Washington. Her early death from cancer was followed by what was certainly a sudden marriage to actress Marsha Mason. Neither Simon nor his friends quite believed remarriage could happen so fast.
This is the personal material Simon builds on in his latest play, evolving for his audience the notion that grief must have its time. This theme, as old as the Bible, has been rather generally glossed over in many of the comments I've read. It may not be new, but it is true and lasting. Simon's concerns almost always are.
Calling the second wife Jennie in his play, Simon creates a richer, more human figure than he previously has found for females. Usually his men have been more fragile creatures than his women, self-tortured, guilt-aware and, from "Horn" onward, on the verge or just cracking up.His women --finitely more sensible, capable of en-during, yet curiously remote, cold, self-sufficient, scornful.
Jennie is not this. She, too, is sensitively aware, and by bringing her courage and determination into focus, Simon has created his most real, endearing woman. Gillette etches the portrait with marvelous theatrical skill, and it's surprising to find that it is Judd Hirsch, who plays the husband (Simon's alter ego), who has been getting the best of the notices for what is, fundamentally, an extension of the playwright's earlier male characters.
Simon's combined triump and problem also may lie in his uncanny sense of how New Yorkers talk and think. I know a New York actress of no fame at all who regrets the playwright moved to California. "Knowing who the man was sipping coffee so unostentatiously in a small restaurant, I miss watching him eavesdrop to pick up how people talk. He has the rhythm of New York speech and reality of attitudes."
What Simon hears are the short, jabbing words, tossed out, spit out, from individuals trying to cope with the vast jungle of steel, concrete and glass. It's a restless kind of talk and ideal for stage dialogue, which Simon has said he always tries to make as brief as possible.
Another Simon quality comes out when he writes of people from the New York suburbs, Mamaroneck, Tenafly or Forest Hills. He adopts the true New Yorker's scorn for those assigned to outer circles.
There's a strain of that New York contempt elsewhere. In "A Chorus Line" there's a line about Buffalo that never fails to get a big laugh at just the place a laugh seems needed to lighten the musical's basically somber atmosphere. That line and about 10 others were contributed by Simon during "A Chorus Line's" early stages at the Public Theater.
Some have noted that in many instances humor helps "A Chorus Line" immensely. Simon is not credited with any contributions to the book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante. He didn't ask for it nor will he even admit that he made one. But "A Chorus Line" did a clean sweep of the Pulitzer-Drama Critics-Tony awards. Maybe that's why they still call him "Doc" Simon, the man who knows how to apply the medicine of laughter for the common man's ills.