Off screen, Neil Simon offers gentle quips rather than barbed one-liners

IT'S the new Neil Simon. Gone are the lightweight farces he used to write. In their place are more ambitious comedy-dramas with serious -- even autobiographical -- overtones.

Gone too are the one-set plays and straight-line stories that were his forte. In their place are restless works that try new effects and break old boundaries.

He doesn't look different. Perched on the corner of a large sofa in his neat Manhattan penthouse, he still has the candid, unassuming manner I've found in previous interviews with him. He still speaks easily and quietly, preferring gentle quips to the barbed one-liners of his plays.

But he admits to changes in his outlook. ``My thinking has become more cinematic,'' he told me recently, summing up the trend. ``Even when I write for the theater, I like stories that move back and forth, the way movies jump from one place to another. I started work on a one-set play a while ago and felt so claustrophobic I couldn't go on!''

The evidence is everywhere. ``Biloxi Blues,'' his brand-new Broadway hit, leaps to new locations -- from railroad car to dance hall -- in scene after scene. ``Brighton Beach Memoirs,'' now in its third year on Broadway, uses one setting but spreads its action into many separate nooks and crannies, all meticulously planned by the playwright.

And his new movie, ``The Slugger's Wife,'' could have existed only on the screen. ``There's no way it could be done onstage,'' Simon says, ``except maybe as a musical, which I didn't want to do. How would you handle the baseball scenes? You'd need offstage voices yelling, `He hit a home run!' It wouldn't work.''

So why write for Broadway? Why not focus on Hollywood and let that ``cinematic'' imagination run wild?

The reason is simple: Despite his long string of major movies, Simon still considers himself a playwright, not a screenwriter. ``When I sit down to start a project,'' he says, ``I'd always prefer that it be a play.''

This is partly a matter of loyalty to his oldest enthusiasm. ``When I was a kid,'' Simon recalls, ``going to the theater was the most exciting thing you could do. Going to the movies was the most exotic thing you could do, which is a little different.''

And there are practical reasons. ``In the theater,'' Simon says wistfully, ``you have such wonderful control. They ask if it's OK to drop the word `but' from the beginning of a line. I say it's important to have the `but,' and they leave it in.''

Not so in the movies, where directors and editors have a field day with the script.

``The Slugger's Wife,'' his new film about a baseball star in a slump, is a case in point. True, it carries Simon's name in big letters over the title. But he isn't sure that's a good idea. ``I didn't ask for it,'' he says. ``The studio just gave it to me.''

Why be concerned about it? Why not take the glory and run? Because this glitzy, rock-and-rolling film isn't quite what Simon had in mind when he handed in his screenplay. Like most movies, it reflects the director more than the author -- the director being Hal Ashby, whose flashy style zings through every frame.

``The movie was made by a team,'' Simon says. ``I was there for part of the shooting, but I didn't stick around for the editing, which took eight months. There are things in it I hardly recognize.''

Does this mean he's displeased with the film that bears his name so prominently? Not really. He's just -- bemused. ``I'll use a dumb analogy,'' Simon says. ``Let's say you took my picture with a camera. The next day I look at it, and it shows me with a big mustache. You added it because you thought it would look nice. You ask me how I like the picture, and I say I don't know. It's not a case of liking or not liking -- it just isn't me!''

This sort of thing makes Simon uneasy, but he takes it in stride. Mustaches have been stuck on his movies before, and he knows it's part of the game. Not since ``The Sunshine Boys'' and ``The Goodbye Girl'' -- both directed by Herbert Ross -- has he felt really in tune with a film that emerged from his script.

The ability to roll with punches is part of a practical streak in Simon's personality. When discussing his work he is happy to deal with aesthetic questions, but often veers toward earthy matters like budgets and schedules -- especially now, when he's just finished writing the screen version of ``Brighton Beach Memoirs,'' a seriocomic look at his own Brooklyn adolescence.

``I opened the play up to a degree,'' he says, describing the adaptation, ``but they told me it wasn't enough of a movie. I said I could open it up more, but did they know what it would cost to film? They said to go ahead, and we'd worry about that later. So I did -- and I probably added $2 million to the picture.''

He expects more of the same when he adapts ``Biloxi Blues,'' the new ``Brighton Beach'' sequel that follows its hero into the Army during the 1940s. ``We'll need all these soldiers,'' Simon says, squirming at the thought of extras to pay and uniforms to rent. He's no more a cheapskate than a spendthrift, though. In money matters he sees himself in the middle bracket -- not a Woody Allen, bringing in dazzlers on a shoestring, but not a flamboyant Steven Spielberg, either.

Overall, how does Simon rate the film and theater worlds just now? The movies suffer from sameness and imitation, he says, while the stage is cramped by a dearth of young writers.

Some things, on the other hand, look brighter than they used to -- such as the rising sophistication of regional playgoers, before whom Simon still likes to test new shows. before Broadway. Although his review of the current scene is mixed, Simon is immersed in it as deeply as ever. He knows some observers criticize him for cranking out too many projects, but work is work, in his view. When you're a writer, you write -- and when directors or editors paste a mustache on your movie, you do a quick double take and press on to the next show.

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