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Arts & Culture

Old Globe's Barry Edelstein Pays Tribute To Neil Simon

American playwright Neil Simon answers questions during an interview in Seattle, Wa., September 22, 1994.
Associated Press
American playwright Neil Simon answers questions during an interview in Seattle, Wa., September 22, 1994.

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright died on Sunday

Old Globe's Barry Edelstein Pays Tribute To Neil Simon
GUESTS: Barry Edelstein, Old Globe Artistic Director Beth Accomando, KPBS arts reporter

This is KPBS midday edition. I'm Maureen Cavanagh playwright and screenwriter Neil Simon died on Sunday at the age of 91. Simon won a Pulitzer Prize multiple Tony Awards and was nominated for four Academy Awards. Time magazine anointed him the patron saint Saint that is of laughter a revival of Neil Simon's 1963 Broadway hit barefoot in the park is currently playing at the old Globe Theatre. Hey PBS arts reporter Beth Komando spoke with the Globes artistic director Barry Edelstein about Simon's legacy. Neil Simon died this past Sunday. You are currently staging barefoot in the park. What led you to pick this one of his early plays as one of the globe productions. Well I've always loved that play. It's so funny and so masterfully put together and we were looking for a kind of summer connection just a fun wonderful romantic piece for the summer season at the globe and we landed on that one looking at Neil Simon's plays what is it about his writing that makes it so appealing for actors to speak these lines and for directors to direct them. Well you know it's been thrilling to be around this play for the last few months actually nine months or a year that we've been working on it. Lowe has loved the movie and I've loved the play when I was first dating my wife she lived in a six floor walk up in New York which is the conceit of the show. So it's always been a personal favorite and the movie with Robert Redford and Jane Fonda is just so beguiling and wonderfully romantic about young love in New York. Why when you growing work. I have to go to work. I don't do this for a living you know have to call them and tell them you can't come into them. Tell them you're sick. I am sick but I have to go and do what you promised you'd never leave me. It's just tough I sorry just until 530. Corey it's a good marriage it'll last until 530 but being around it I've discovered a couple of things about Neil Simon one he's renowned as a comic craftsman as a joke writer of almost kind of pressure natural gifts. And when you sit closely with this script and you watch how he sets up a joke how he will drop one little piece of information at the beginning of the play bring it back a second time in the middle of the play and then pay it off a third time at the end of the play. And it's like an earthquake goes off in the theater because the laughter is so powerful it's kind of remarkable to watch a guy craft something that carefully. It's like going and looking at a piece of furniture put together by an old world craftsman. You know nothing is out of place. It's incredibly brilliantly engineered. It's it's meticulous in its attention to detail. So that's been amazing and of course that's his reputation. He's known as one of the greatest joke technicians that the American theater has ever produced American comedy has ever produced. The big discovery for us about this show though is how much love is in it. Because when you think about him as this craftsman you think yeah he's just doing setup setup payoff set punch punchline all night long. And that's true. But there is this deep deep sense of affection in the play deep sense of love and romance he wrote the play as a valentine to his first wife who died of cancer. And you just feel this tremendous tremendous heart. That is what I think is going to make Neil Simon survive. And as always happens when a when a great artist dies suddenly everybody remembers them with a fondness that they didn't feel for them while they were alive. And I think that's going to be true here and all these masterpieces. The Odd Couple Plaza Suite Prisoner of Second Avenue. All of the early ones I think even the musical they're playing our song will be ripe for revival and people will not only celebrate this great gag writer but also this deep human affectionate warm gentle spirit that's there too. He won an armload of awards. Tony's a Pulitzer but because he wrote primarily in comedy. Do you think that on a certain level he never got as much respect as some other American playwrights. I think that comedy always has taken a little bit less seriously than drama. You know all the statistics about Best Picture at the Oscar you know never go to comedies and stuff like that so I think that's maybe true to a certain extent. I think the other thing that that affected his reputation is that he always felt kind of one step behind the changing Zeit Geist in America right. I mean who's afraid of Virginia Woolf was on Broadway one year before barefoot in the park. And when you think of those two plays together Neil Simon feels like an old fashioned Boulevard writer compared to Edward Albee right there. They're just writing from two different polls. The critical establishment always gravitates toward the darker rider. And so in a sense Simon just got a little bit left behind left behind the times a little bit. Interestingly when he started writing darker material when he got into his autobiographical pieces about growing up in the Bronx Jewish in the Bronx in whatever it was 30s that's when the critics started taking him seriously again. There just is this predilection toward darker material that sort of wins the day with the people who give out awards and the people who write reviews. What do you think people are going to remember most or which of his plays do you think are going to stand the test of time best. The voice of Neil Simon's writing is in some ways the kind of seminal voice of American comedy. All those guys that were in the writing room for Sid Caesar and your show of shows you know Woody Allen was there and Mel Brooks was there and Neil Simon was there. That's the sound of American comedy for the past 50 years. So as long as that is the cultural rhythm of what a joke sounds like Neil Simon will always be at the center. And I think the response that we are getting to barefoot in the park is really really instructive. I mean I'm incredibly sorry that the sadness of his passing is now associated with this production of the globe although it's a wonderful way to pay tribute to him. And when I hear the laughter in the theater it's kind of a great benediction in a way. Right. But I think that this tells me that there are directors out there like Jessica Stone who directed this show who are going to find nuances and shadings in the plays that actually weren't possible before. And I really believe and I I certainly think we're already talking about what the next Neil Simon is that we're going to look at. I think you're going to see a wave of Simon revivals in New York and around the country that are going to rediscover a brilliance there that will justly cement his place in the pantheon. That was KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando speaking with artistic director Barry Edelstein the Globes production of barefoot in the park has been extended to September 16th.

Neil Simon Suggested Films

"Come Blow Your Horn" (1963)

"Barefoot in the Park" (1967)

"The Odd Couple" (1968)

"Sweet Charity" (1969)

"The Heartbreak Kid" (1972)

"Last of the Red Hot Lovers" (1972)

"The Sunshine Boys" (1975)

"The Goodbye Girl" (1977)

"Brighton Beach Memoirs" (1986)

"Biloxi Blues" (1988)

"Lost in Yonkers" (1993)

Playwright and screenwriter Neil Simon died on Sunday at the age of 91. The Old Globe Theatre is currently running a production of his 1963 play “Barefoot in the Park.”

Neil Simon won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his 1991 play “Lost in Yonkers;” multiple Tony Awards (for such works as “The Odd Couple” and “Biloxi Blues”); and was nominated for a quartet of Academy Awards (for “The Goodbye Girl” and for adapting his plays to the screen). Time magazine anointed him the “Patron Saint of Laughter.”

Old Globe Artistic Director Barry Edelstein selected Simon's early play "Barefoot in the Park" as one of the plays for the current season.

"I've always loved that play," Edelstein said. "It's so funny and so masterfully put together. We were looking for a summer confection, just a fun, wonderful, romantic piece for the summer season at the Globe and we landed on that one."

Kerry Bishé as Corie Bratter and Chris Lowell as Paul Bratter in "Barefoot in the Park," by Neil Simon, directed by Jessica Stone, running July 28 through Sept. 16 at The Old Globe.
Jim Cox
Kerry Bishé as Corie Bratter and Chris Lowell as Paul Bratter in "Barefoot in the Park," by Neil Simon, directed by Jessica Stone, running July 28 through Sept. 16 at The Old Globe.

Edelstein has high praise for Simon's comic craftsmanship: "You watch how he sets up a joke. How he will drop one little piece of information at the beginning of the play; bring it back a second time in the middle of the play; and then pay it off a third time at the end of the play and it's like an earthquake goes off in the theater because the laughter is so powerful. It's remarkable to watch a guy craft something that carefully. But the big discovery for us about the show is how much love is in it."

The Globe has extended the run of "Barefoot in the Park" to Sept. 16.