Fading Neil Simon fans, theater locale among factors
“I think marketing is always an ingredient, and it’s an easy one to run to,” says “Brighton Beach Memoirs” producer Emanuel Azenberg. “But it’s not the only one.”Of course, he’s right: Marketing wasn’t the only factor that killed “The Neil Simon Plays.” Many pundits pointed to the absence of stars (Laurie Metcalf was the cast’s biggest name). Others said staggering the openings of the two plays was a mistake; a combined launch might have created a sense of event theater. Some said it was too soon to revive plays many audiences still remember from the first time around or from their high rotation on the regional circuit. A snarky online chorus said the production wasn’t Jewish enough already. The south-of-Times Square location of the Nederlander Theater was seen as another challenge, denying the show the tourist foot traffic that bolsters venues a block or two north. Then there was the Depression factor; were people simply too concerned with their own economic struggles to contemplate watching those of another family?But the most intense debate centered on the traditional Neil Simon audience, and whether it has faded away. Once regarded as the closest thing possible to a commercially safe bet in the American theater, the 82-year-old playwright’s name no longer carries much cachet with young audiences. His most recent Broadway revivals have been “The Odd Couple” in 2005, a strong seller driven primarily by the reteaming of “The Producers” duo Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick; and “Barefoot in the Park” the following year, which eked out a three-month run after tepid reviews. It’s true that Simon’s comedies epitomize a brand of Broadway-lite that’s now largely out of fashion. But the critical snobbery directed at one of America’s most successful playwrights has no doubt contributed to that decline. While many reviewers at the time of their premieres applauded the greater emotional depth and personal investment in the semi-autobiographical trilogy that comprises “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” “Biloxi Blues” and “Broadway Bound,” Simon has always been regarded somewhat dismissively as a jokemeister, his craftsmanship seemingly undercut by his flair for the one-liner. Unlike his closest trans-Atlantic counterpart, Alan Ayckbourn, who was viewed as a one-man middlebrow hit factory through the 1980s but has since acquired the stature of a modern-day Chekhov, Simon has never really benefited from critical re-evaluation. Even some of the positive reviews for “Brighton” felt the need to stress that it wasn’t quite Arthur Miller. Duh. One critic reviewing the revival astutely pointed out that it will probably take a repertory staging of the trilogy at London’s National Theater for Simon to be embraced as a leading 20th century American playwright. Gordon Cox contributed to this report.
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