For author of 'Odd Couple,' the play's the thing

Interview / Neil Simon

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Neil Simon is proud of his life in the theater. But it's not vanity that makes him say he doesn't believe a young playwright can have a career like his today.

"I've never seen such a low status" for playwrights, he says, referring to the attitudes he sees on Broadway today. "People are coming to New York with their children to see musicals," not plays. "We are catering to the children now."

For a man in his seventh decade, who wouldn't be blamed for filling his days playing golf, Mr. Simon remains passionate about his career and the future of playwriting. "I need to keep going to new places," he says. Through his writing, his characters do that, whether they are emotional or physical journeys.

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The problem for young playwrights today, says Simon, is that Broadway offers little opportunity for serious theater.

Playwrights "make so little money, so [young writers] go to TV." They tell him they anguish over the decision but ultimately give in to the simple need to make a living.

"And they're lost to playwriting," says Simon, who himself has written 31 plays. His most recent is "The Dinner Party," which opened Dec. 2 at The Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and runs through Jan. 16.

Simon, many of whose plays are now part of the popular culture ("The Odd Couple," "Barefoot in the Park," "The Sunshine Boys"), says writing is the most natural activity he knows. It's an occupation that has helped him through personal trials.

In his new book, "The Play Goes On: A Memoir" (Simon and Schuster, 1999), a follow-up to his first memoir, "Rewrites," he details how important the act of writing has been to his life. "I had to keep on writing, continuously, compulsively, relentlessly," he says.

Indeed, he has opened up his life for the world to see both onstage and in the successful films made from his stage productions, in particular the tragicomic trilogy "Brighton Beach Memoirs," "Biloxi Blues," and "Broadway Bound."

"It's never a problem for me to put my life up there" on the stage or screen, the playwright says. In some ways, the act of investigating the painful periods in his life has helped him move past them. Though he claims "The Dinner Party" is not autobiographical, it does deals with an issue that concerns him deeply - relationships.

"What I wanted to do was have people face each other," says Simon, who has been married five times, "and bring out their feelings about what happened." The play gathers three divorced couples together in an elegant French restaurant where they gradually peel back the misunderstandings that have built up between them.

Simon began his career writing material for comics such as Jackie Gleason and Buddy Hackett. "I've been called a comedy writer all my life," he says. "But the truth is, I write what interests me. I don't think about commerciality." (Nonetheless, his career has been a commercial success - in the early '90s his net worth was estimated at $30 million.)

Despite many rave reviews, critics have not always rushed to praise him. "Neither high comedy nor effective farce," said the Los Angeles Times of "The Dinner Party," and "not enough like Neil Simon."

The author laughs at such critiques, which he says began when "The Odd Couple" became a hit. Soon his writing was identified with jokes and broad comedy.

"Critics don't like you to go to unfamiliar places," he says with a sigh. "When I went there with ["The Dinner Party"], I did it because I needed to.

"But the audiences do buy into it," he says, adding that he gauges his success by the phone calls and letters he receives.

Simon is well-known for his distinctly un-Bohemian approach to writing. He keeps regular, daily work hours. And he eschews a computer for a typewriter. Using this approach, he has turned out 26 screenplays and two books.

He claims to have no idea where his ideas come from.

"I love the process of writing," he says in an effort to explain his creative process. "In the end, it's always an investigation of yourself."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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