While stage-managing the Broadway production of Biloxi Blues by Neil Simon in preparation for taking the First National Tour on the road back in 1986, I had the good fortune to work closely with both Mr. Simon and Gene Sacks, the Broadway director. We opened the tour in Palm Beach to an audience “dressed to the nines”. It was a fun-filled night, excitement in the air. The young actors playing the World War II recruits were on their game and had a great time. However, after the performance, Gene Saks gathered the cast and stage managers around him in a closed-door session. He was not pleased. He told us that we played for laughs – and that this was not, in any way, the intention of the author. These characters were, in fact, all terrified young men going off to a war from which they may not return in one piece, if at all…and then he spoke the phrase that has stuck with me for all my days:
“This is NOT an army comedy.”
This phrase, in and of itself, was a master class in Neil Simon given by his best and most trusted colleague. To play Simon properly one must get to the heart of the characters in the play. It is as important to play for the truth in Simon, as it is in Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, William Shakespeare, or any of our revered playwrights. For it is in the truth that we find the comedy. We held a special rehearsal the next day and Mr. Saks was satisfied with the renewed dedication of the actors to playing this truth. The result was a very successful year-and- a-half long tour, of which we were all proud.
I tell this story to reflect on the career and success of Neil Simon, perhaps the most important and prolific writer of comedy the American Theatre has ever produced. Over the course of five decades Mr. Simon wrote 34 plays and countless screenplays based mostly on his theatre work. He has won more awards than any other playwright in history. There even used to be a New York City truism, that if you had the good fortune to work with Mr. Simon, you might just get the “Neil Simon” summerhouse, or the “Neil Simon” apartment. Such was the cache and the popularity of his work. His commitment to his art, his voice, his culture and his colleagues has inspired generations of theatre artists including myself.
But to say that he was a funny writer with a gift for gags misses the point entirely, I think. It is his heart, and his insight into human nature – the way we relate to one and other – that is his true gift. Play after play, he confronts relationships, betrayal, cultural identity, loss, great sorrow, friendships, loyalty, and a host of topics inherent to the human condition. His great gift is that he finds a way to laughter even in the darkest of times. For we all see the light in the darkness, and we sense the dark in the light. Neil Simon’s great gift to us all is that we can, and must see both – that life is not only an “army comedy”.
The Montana Repertory Theatre