A NEW STAGE FOR NEIL SIMON

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- Neil Simon is sitting in the lounge at the Four Seasons Hotel, nursing his sore throat with a cup of chamomile tea. At 69, after 29 plays and 20-odd screenplays, he is touring again.

But this time he's not touring with a show. This time, he is the show. From Toronto to Pittsburgh, from New York to the Washington's Smithsonian, hundreds of people are filling auditoriums to see Neil Simon instead of a Neil Simon play.

That's the difference between writing a play and writing a memoir, "Rewrites," Simon's first "real" book. (All his plays have been published, but it's not quite the same thing.) When you write a memoir, you can't hire an actor to read your lines. Hence, the sore throat; hence, the tea.

"Getting up in front of 800 people as I did the other night -- that's pressure," he says. "Because that's performing and I'm not a performer."

Still, he is capable of a perfectly timed double-take, as he demonstrates when asked if he saw Entertainment Weekly's recent assertion that "The Odd Couple" has always had a homosexual subtext.

"It doesn't surprise me," he admits. "The only place the play failed in the world when it was first done was in Spain, because they thought it was a homosexual play and they played it that way." It never played that way on Broadway, not with Art Carney and Walter Matthau drinking beer and watching football.

He has a thousand stories like this, stories of the bygone era that was Broadway in the 1960s and '70s. Stories of all-nighters and third-act problems and waiting for the reviews in Sardi's.

There's director Mike Nichols in Boston, ordering chocolate ice cream from room service as he and Simon contemplate the gloomy news that George C. Scott wants to walk away from the about-to-be smash, "Plaza Suite." ("Ice cream, you're going to eat ice cream now?" Simon asked his director. "You mean if I don't eat ice cream, maybe he'll come back to the play?" Nichols replies.) There's Connie Stevens, "The Star-Spangled Girl," taking off in mid-run to see beau Eddie Fisher in Puerto Rico, then calling to report she is grounded because her plane has a flat tire -- for the second night in a row.

Another all-nighter with Nichols in Boston, as they try to fix the end of "The Prisoner of Second Avenue." Nichols knows it doesn't work, but cannot articulate why. Simon accepts the director's instincts and ends up improvising a tableau inspired by "American Gothic."

"The next night, the ending worked like a charm," Simon writes. "We envied each other's abilities. He hated me for thinking of it and I hated him for making me think of it. Such are the ways of a perfect collaboration."

Another perfect collaboration lies at the heart of "Rewrites" -- Simon's marriage to his first wife, Joan, who died of cancer at age 39.

The reviews mirror the kind of reviews Simon has received since the early '60s, after a golden period in which "Barefoot in the Park" and "The Odd Couple" convinced critics, oh so briefly, that he could do no wrong. "If you could plot it, it would look like an EKG graph," Simon says now of his relationship with critics. "It goes up and it goes down, and it doesn't necessarily go up and down according to the quality."

"Rewrites" has received its share of raves, from such disparate sources as the Washington Post's Jonathan Yardley and the comedian Steve Allen. "Rewrites" also has generated the usual anti-Simon sniping, most notably from Jeremy Gerard, the Variety critic, writing in the New York Times Book Review. "Crystalline exceptions tucked into this muzzly landscape," is the closest he comes to a compliment.

Finally, there is the unnamed reviewer who called Simon, furious because the book ends when Simon is only 46 and so much has yet to happen --his marriage to Marsha Mason, the triumph of his Brighton Beach trilogy, the Pulitzer Prize for "Lost in Yonkers." "I didn't want it to stop," the critic reportedly wailed. Simon assured him there would be an Act Two in a year or so.

"If I kept on going, I would have had an 800-page book," Simon explains. "But the other [reason for stopping] was an emotional reason. Even though it was 23 years ago and I've been married twice since, Joan's death was such a torturous and difficult time that writing about it again was very emotional. Having done it, I was spent."

"Rewrites" begins in 1957, with Simon typing out the name of what he hopes will be his first play, "One Shoe Off." He has to write a play, because the television comedy business, where he has honed his talent, is moving west, and he does not wish to move west with it. He looks at the title, then adds another line, four spaces down: "A New Comedy."

"I sat back and studied it," he writes. "Not a bad start for a first play. Then I suddenly wondered: When they wrote together, did George S. Kaufman type this out or did Moss Hart? . . . it suddenly occurred to me that of the two lines I had written so far, one of them was inordinately stupid. 'A New Comedy'? Was this to make it clear to the audiences that they should not confuse this with 'An Old Comedy'? Shouldn't it just be 'A Comedy'? And that was a matter of opinion."

"One Shoe Off" became, after 22 rewrites, "Come Blow Your Horn," making it to Broadway only after a tryout in summer stock and an out-of-town opening night in Philadelphia, where someone suffered a heart attack in the balcony. Reviews were generally good, although Simon recalls the moment at his opening-night party in which a man pantomimed a thumbs down, smiling broadly.

"Rewrites" is, as the title suggests, primarily a theatrical memoir. But Simon uses his plays -- often autobiographical, although not so often as theater-goers may imagine -- to tell the story of his life, where there were few chances to polish or revise.

"Come Blow Your Horn," with its story of sibling rivalry, gives him the opportunity to consider the bond between him and his older brother, Danny. "Barefoot in the Park" is clearly about the early days of his marriage to Joan. "The Odd Couple" was based on experiences Danny had after his divorce. "The Last of the Red Hot Lovers" had an autobiographical inspiration but was not the story of his life. And so on.

Simon writes in "Rewrites": "I felt I had stopped relating to people as friends, relatives and acquaintances. Instead they turned into my victims, as I ripped their private souls from their being, PTC feeding my hunger, my insatiable desire to use them in my writings, in my plays, in my thoughts."

He made a similar, gentler confession before, in "The Good Doctor," written just after Joan's death. A character known only as the Writer says: "When I put down my pen at the end of a day's work, I cannot help but feel that I have robbed my friends of their precious life fluid . . . What makes my conscience torment me even more is that I've had a wonderful time writing today."

Simon continues to have a wonderful time writing, working five days a week in his California home. Yes, he's in California, the state he was so desperate to avoid that he started writing plays in the first place.

And after a much-publicized decision to open "London Suite" off-Broadway, he's also back on Broadway next year, with "Proposals." But those are stories for another day, another memoir.

The interview over, Simon has to prepare for tonight's reading. Even as he steps on the stage, he knows that somewhere in the world, a Neil Simon play is in production. Young newlyweds are moving into a fifth-floor walk-up, or two divorced men are driving each other crazy, or two brothers are living with their grandmother in Yonkers.

The royalty statements run for pages and pages, filled with places Simon has never been, or, in some cases, places he's never even heard of.

Not that he's always pleased with his work in translation. He once saw a Swedish production of "Broadway Bound," part of his trilogy. They added a scene from "Brighton Beach Memoirs." They sang "Oklahoma." They donned top hats and danced. There was also "The Prisoner of Second Avenue" in Paris, where the actor ended up having a pillow fight with the audience.

"So, yes, somewhere one of my plays is being produced tonight," Simon says. "But God knows what it's like."

Pub Date: 10/07/96

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