AFTER writing 24 plays in 28 years, Neil Simon is taking a breather - by doing just two original screenplays this year. After that, another play perhaps, but never again a farce, like his current Broadway and national-tour success, ``Rumors.'' ``Too difficult,'' he says. ``I only wrote it to try the form.''
Hands behind his head, Reeboks crossed on his glass-topped coffee table, this prolific writer for stage, film, television, and radio sees nothing strange about his version of a change of pace.
``I've been thinking that maybe I ought to slow down,'' he says with an earnest glance through his signature horn-rimmed glasses. So instead of another play, eventually coming to a movie house near you will be ``My Son's Brother,'' possibly starring Robin Williams, and after that ``The Marrying Man,'' a ``different kind of comedy,'' with stars and plot as yet undisclosed. Both, according to the writer, reveal a more perceptive view and poignant voice than the early punch-line-a-minute Simon shows.
Alone for the first time in 40 years, seven months after a divorce from his third wife, Diane Lander, Mr. Simon adds, ``I also want to get my life in order, see what else there is.'' (His first wife, Joan, died in 1973. He married Marsha Mason that same year, and they were divorced in 1982.)
He stopped writing television back in 1959 to see what else there was besides penning 39 half-hour episodes a year for ``The Phil Silvers Show'' (later syndicated as ``Sergeant Bilko''). The year before, he helped turn out 39 90-minute episodes for ``Your Show of Shows.'' He won Emmys for both series.
He likes to make a point to those who fear that such hard work might be hazardous to one's health: Quite the contrary, he says. When he started writing plays, he feared there wouldn't be enough ways to fill his free time. As far as getting his life in order, then and now, he considers writing the process that enables him to do that. ``When things in life don't work out the way you want, you say, `Gosh, if I were at the typewriter, these characters could do just this and just that.' You can control the life of the creation there.''
Now with two dozen plays and a dozen movies behind him, Neil Simon helps shape, and is shaped by, his times. So much so that his answers come unwittingly distilled into snippets of film-and-thespian Americana: ``It's second nature to me now'' (from Alan J. Lerner's lyric in ``My Fair Lady'') is his answer to why he continues to write. ``Planes, trains, and automobiles'' (the recent movie title) is how he describes his life in transit between residences in New York, Los Angeles, Malibu, and the movie sets or theaters where his work is produced.
ALL of this adds up to a thoughtful interview in the living room of his ranch-style Bel Air estate. Long hallways with wooden floors are adorned with paintings at every turn. Sculptures and memorabilia line mantels and tables. Outside, the fragrance of the tropics and the gurgle of fountains enhance dramatic views of Los Angeles.
``There is something going on on Broadway that is really disheartening,'' he says with a wistfulness that will underline much of what he has to say about the American theater. ``There are only five plays [on the boards there]. Two of them are revivals, and, of the other three, one is a holdover from last year. That leaves `Eastern Standard' and `Rumors' as the only successful plays out. I would never have become a playwright if the odds had been so difficult then.''
Other signs of the times: When he is asked to speak at the University of California here, it is to talk about screen writing, not playwriting. ``They're only interested in films,'' he laments. The American theater has become decentralized to the point that ``you can't see a play anywhere. Plays are becoming smaller, and regional theater is becoming more important. I haven't tried out a play in the commercial theater in about five years now,'' he says.
He contrasts the current situation to his youth in the '40s, when no fewer than 60 shows were on Broadway or touring the boroughs. The problem today is money. ``The first play I wrote, `Come Blow Your Horn,' cost $70,000, but a play now runs you about $900,000. It's a lot of money to gamble; so people don't bother.'' He says universities have taken up the slack, with Duke at the forefront. Both Mikhail Baryshnikov (``Metamorphosis'') and Simon's own daughter, Ellen (``Moonlight and Valentino''), have plays in workshop there.
THE other big problem with plays today, says Simon, is the commitment of time required of stars. ``You offer someone a film, and they know it's 10 or 12 weeks' work; they'll take it. If you offer someone a play, you're asking them for four weeks of rehearsal, two months out of town, and a six-month run. That's nine months. They're very wary of doing that.''
And for the playwright, there are non-monetary hurdles. ``The thing about plays that have gotten me really tired is the long, tedious process of going through maybe six months of auditioning for cast. You can cast a movie much more simply, because there are more people who want to do movies, and there are more people out here you can see.''
So Simon has dropped the business of writing plays that only later become movies, such as his recent semi-autobiographical trilogy: ``Brighton Beach Memoirs,'' ``Biloxi Blues,'' and ``Broadway Bound.'' They were all plays first, then movies. Though his new ``My Brother's Son'' has some biographical elements, it is less tied to his own life than the trilogy.
``The one thing that becomes a little irksome is that everyone assumes that my plays are autobiographic,'' Simon says. ``I mean, if they were, I would have called the character Neil Simon.'' Writing is like painting, he says. ``Most really great painters don't paint exactly what they see out there. They reorder nature.''
Simon did the same, for example, in ``Brighton Beach Memoirs.'' ``My mother and father and I did not take in an aunt and two daughters to live. The opposite happened. So I chose, for the benefit of the play, to see my family as a happy unit, knowing that I would eventually get to the part where my family broke up.''
Simon says this process is not manipulation but, rather, ``reordering.'' The distinction is important to understand, he feels, because there are elements of his own life in all his plays, yet he resists being pigeonholed as an autobiographical writer, because it sounds so self-indulgent.
``You can't help but write from your own experience,'' he says. `Come Blow Your Horn' was about two brothers leaving home, which is what happened to me. `The Odd Couple' was about my brother, Danny, and a friend of his named Roy Gerber.'' But please don't call it `autobiography,''' Simon repeats. And some of the movies get even further from the truth than the plays.
```The Goodbye Girl' had nothing to do with me, but it seemed that way, because I was married to [its star] Marsha [Mason], when I did it.''
The other pigeonholing that Simon resists is that he is primarily a comedy writer. It is a debate that swirled about him furiously in his early years, has died down, but resurfaces occasionally.
``His characters exist too much for laughs,'' says William James, an associate professor of drama and dance at the University of Santa Clara. ``He is one of the most theatrically adept and facile writers around, but no matter how much he writes, the characters never get any deeper.''
``I think I write as serious as I need to - but I think it is a play you're after and not either a comedy or a drama,'' says Simon. ``Beckett's `Waiting for Godot' is a funny play, yet you can be deeply moved. `Biloxi Blues' goes from funny to sad to hilarious to tragic - and I didn't plan it out. It just happened, because I had to touch on all the bases that happen when you're in the Army.''
Simon touches other bases in 90 minutes of conversation:
Life imitating art: ``Sometimes an audience will get mad at me when something poignant happens in a comedic moment. They go: `What are you doing? You just had me laughing, and then you turned around, and then you made me cry.' I say, `Tough. That's the way life is; that's the way I see it.'''
Plays vs. musicals: ``All the musicals today seem to have turned to operetta - like `Les Mis'erables' or `Phantom of the Opera.' I wouldn't dare try to write a musical now, because I don't know what the form is anymore. They don't have them anymore.''
Themes of Neil Simon: ``I thought early on of writing about the conflict of partners in business. It's a theme that keeps popping back into my plays - `The Sunshine Boys,' `The Odd Couple' - the universality of not being able to get along, the difficulty in making the compromises it takes to live with another person.''
At 61, Simon says he is thinking of slowing the pace a little, but quickly adds he has never considered retirement. He recalls a book he received from a friend the other day. ``Some professor wrote, `First of all, I have to tell you, this is a fact: No one likes writing. Without exception. They like having written, but they don't like writing.'
``That's completely untrue for me. I love writing.''