‘Simon-izing’ the stages at The Rep, New Jewish Theatre

Leo Ramsey and Robert Love in the New Jewish Theatre’s upcoming production of ‘Lost in Yonkers.’  The play, running Oct. 4-21, opens the NJT season. Photo: Peter Wochniak

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Neil Simon, one of the most successful and prolific playwrights in American theatrical history, will have his work staged at two local theatrical venues as each opens its 2012-2013 season. The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis will launch its 46th season with Simon’s autobiographical “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” an affectionate look-back on growing up Jewish in Brooklyn in the 1930s. It is the first time the Rep has ever staged a Simon play.

And early next month, Simon’s “Lost in Yonkers” will open the 16th season of the New Jewish Theatre.


Simon, now 85, has produced more successful Broadway plays, many of which were triumphantly adapted as feature films and television shows, than any other American dramatist. To be sure, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams achieved more critical acclaim for their signature plays “Death of a Salesman” and “A Streetcar Named Desire,” but Simon’s work, in addition to those mentioned above, include “The Odd Couple,” which is an all-time classic of theatrical comedy, and which spawned a successful film, TV series and numerous revivals; “The Sunshine Boys,” one of the funniest—and most poignant—glances back at vaudeville through the eyes of two fading former stars; and “Chapter Two,” another autobiographical work, which reveals the challenges that Simon and his Webster Groves-born wife, Marsha Mason, faced with the constant presence of the spirit of his beloved first wife hovering over their relationship.

Simon did appear here for a major Jewish event in 1996. He was the keynote speaker at the 18th Annual Jewish Book Festival on Nov. 2 of that year.  He had just published “Rewrites: A Memoir” (Simon & Schuster, $34).

Simon is an unusually shy person, especially for one who spent his entire career in show business, and he is also very soft-spoken. Fortunately, he did not attempt to present a solo speech, which might have been a dud. Instead, he was interviewed on stage at the Jewish Community Center by Steven Woolf, artistic director of the Rep, who will also direct “Brighton Beach Memoirs” when it opens today (and runs through Sept. 30).

During the question-and-answer portion of the Book Festival program, I was able to ask Simon how his being Jewish affected his work. “It affects my work mysteriously,” he replied. He said that he “feels Jewishness in my bones. Jews have the capacity for humor, as do most ethnic minorities. It is a way we deal with pain.”

Simon also regaled the audience with his memories of working with Sid Casar and Carl Reiner on their legendary “Your Show of Shows,” with Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart and a solo non-Jew, Dick Cavett. Because Simon is so soft-spoken, he would sometimes ask Reiner to shout out the joke he had just written at rehearsal so that Caesar would hear it and respond. Simon’s play “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” presented by the NJT during its 2009-2010 season, deals with this important era in his career.

In his memoir, Simon discusses the contrast between writing comedy versus “serious” drama. “In many quarters, to write comedy brings you popularity and success,” he notes. “To write drama brings you respect. That argument has and will go on for years with no resolution.”

That might have been true back in 1996. But it appears that the American Jewish playwright, born Marvin Neil Simon on July 4, 1927, has earned his fair share of respect with 34 of his plays hitting the boards of Broadway and scores of TV and movie classics under his belt.