Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
If you’re unfamiliar with the name Neil Simon, it seems clear you’ve regularly attended neither theater nor film, have an aversion to natural human comedy, or are very young. The author has written over 30 plays, almost an equal number of screenplays, and a handful of librettos. Simon received more combined Oscar and Tony nominations than any other writer. His melding of comedy with compassionate drama and situation with characters we feel we know – often heroes in their own small worlds – allows us to laugh even when highly affected.
This is a big book. It combines Simon’s 1996 Rewrites and his 1999 The Play Goes On with an introduction by Nathan Lane and an afterward by wife, Elaine Joyce. Don’t let the bulk throw you. It’s easy, enjoyable reading. For those of us long aware of the artist, references to most work embroiders memories and illuminates well known collaborators. The volume is not a resume. Simon is candid about fallibility and fear, personal life inspiring his oeuvre and vice versa. That he states he kept neither journals nor diaries makes detail impressive.
“If character is fate, as the Greeks tell us, then it was my fate to become a playwright. Destiny seems preordained by the gods. Fate comes to those who continue on the path they started on when all other possible roads were closed to them.”
Marvin Neil Simon (1927-) grew up during the Great Depression regularly abandoned by his father, raised by an overwrought mother who inadvertently taught him to refuse assistance, advice, and comforting. “I have driven myself to the hospital rather than put someone out…” He admits this cut him off from many organic feelings. I would amend the statement by suggesting the difficulty may have applied to his private life, not the author’s prose.
Directly after High School and The Army Air Force Reserve, Simon and his older brother Danny got jobs writing comedy for radio and television. (See: Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, Broadway Bound, and later, Lost in Yonkers for which he won The Pulitzer Prize.) The two eventually joined a brilliant staff concocting Sid Caesar’s iconic Your Show of Shows. Carl Reiner, Howie Morris and Woody Allen, who stated that Danny Simon taught him everything he knows about comedy, were peers. (See Laughter on the 23rd Floor)
Simon’s first plays were Come Blow Your Horn, Barefoot in the Park – the last directed by Mike Nichols about whom he writes with keen-eyed ardor, and the Tony Award-winning The Odd Couple which turned out to be an annuity encompassing film and television. The studio wanted Bing Crosby and Bob Hope to play his characters on film. Instead, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau inhabited the roles. The memoirist writes about both actors with wit and esteem. We hear about producers, directors, actors, agents… There’s neither difficulty nor dirt here. Curiously Simon elaborates on trials in personal rather than professional relationships, the opposite of most autobiographies.
Plays and screenplays (including some adaptations) flowed out of him. The author often juggled two or three projects simultaneously. “Neil the writer had time for only one thing: he wrote…more and more he would take over Neil the person’s time…” Despite incredible success and remarkable early facility “I could almost always tell what wouldn’t work in front of an audience. This is not to say I could tell what would work…,” he remained insecure and strangely guilty. Guilt, a state that contributed to breakdowns and drove him to intermittent analysis, comes up again and again.
Does self reproach stem from a childhood about which he was impotent? Did Simon feel ideas came too easily; that he was unworthy of accolades? Were serial consequences of not paying attention to personal relationships the root of his remorse? Armchair conjecturing.
Neil Simon was married five times. Joan Baim created a stable home life for which he was grateful and about which he was surprised, bore two daughters, and tragically died of cancer. Actress Marsha Mason brought light back into his life, understood and participated in common craft, and is deemed incredibly patient. (See: Chapter II.) Actress Diane Lander, whom he wed twice, eventually adopting her daughter, was fired from a Neiman Marcus job for talking to him. “I have to make it up to you,” Simon entreated. “Dinner isn’t enough. I have to buy you a small restaurant…” (There are endless wonderful quips.) Simon is descriptive, yet discreet. He takes the blame for every nuptial failure.
Falling in love with and wedding actress Elaine Joyce, after both felt finished with marriage, offers a happy ending. “For me, I hope there will be additional satisfactions besides my work…I feel now that while I have fewer years to live, I have more time in which to live them.”
BTW, according to Neil Simon, it was his brother Danny who nicknamed him “Doc” during playtime with a doctor’s kit. Neil was three years-old.
“I had a gift, albeit a simple one-but then fortunately I was not the one who God chose to lead His people out of Egypt.”
You are a political refugee. We don’t turn back people like you, people in danger.
Theater audiences don’t usually burst into applause in the middle of a scene. But these aren’t usual times, and the line above, from Lillian Hellman’s 1941 Watch on the Rhine, certainly struck a nerve with those attending an opening night performance at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. Hellman’s 76 year-old play may be about a different time in history, but the themes seem eerily fitting today.
The Fichandler Stage
Family matriarch, Fanny Farrelly (Marsha Mason), and her son, David (Thomas Keegan), live outside the nation’s capital, in a mansion watched over by two servants, Anise (Helen Hedman), and Joseph (Addison Switzer). Also in the house are two guests – Count Teck De Brancovis (J Anthony Crane) and his wife, Marthe (Natalia Payne). In the round Fichandler Stage, the gazebo-like living room designed by Todd Rosenthal is upscale yet warm and comfortable, a setting that reflects the inhabitants.
The household is preparing for a visit by Sara (Lisa Bruneau), Fanny’s daughter and David’s sister, who has been in Europe for 20 years. Sara arrives with her husband, Kurt Müller (a visceral performance by Andrew Long), and their three children, Joshua (Ethan Miller), Babette (Lucy Breedlove), and Bodo (Tyler Bowman).
Ethan Miller, Helen Hedman, Lise Bruneau, Andrew Long, and Lucy Breedlove
Fanny and David greet Sara warmly. Fanny not only is thrilled to have her daughter home, but excited to meet her grandchildren. She’s soon showering them with presents. David and Sara reminisce about their times growing up in the mansion. But their lives have taken far different paths. While Fanny and David have been living in a safe “bubble,” Sara and her family have been on the front lines in Germany, watching with horror the destruction wrought by Hitler. “The world has changed and some of the people in it are dangerous,” Sara says. “It’s time you knew that.” Kurt has not worked as an engineer since 1933 and instead risks his life fighting the rise of fascism. And that fight has followed him to America. He receives word that his compatriots in Germany are in trouble and he needs to return, along with the suitcase of money contributed by supporters of the cause, to help free them.
Like so many Americans during that time, Fanny and David fail to grasp the full import of what is happening in Europe. Seeing the danger through Sara’s and Kurt’s eyes brings things into focus. They fully support Kurt’s efforts, as evidenced by David’s declaration quoted above.
J Anthony Crane and Natalia Payne
The fly in the ointment is the count. De Brancovis is a desperate man. His marriage is ending (Marthe has fallen in love with David), and after spending nights gambling at the German embassy, he’s in serious debt. When he discovers Kurt’s identity and what’s in the suitcase, he sees an opportunity to repay the Farrelly’s hospitality with blackmail. He asks for what’s in the suitcase, as well as money from the Farrellys, to keep quiet. That demand will set into motion events that threaten everyone with deadly consequences.
Marsha Mason (photo byTony Powell)
Mason, once a high profile presence in 1970 romantic comedies, has talked about the difficulties older actresses face landing film roles. Her recent appearances on the small screen include guest spots on CBS’s The Good Wife and Madame Secretary, and Grace and Frankie on Netflix. She’s the high profile star in this production. Don’t miss the chance to see this professional at the top of her game. She commands attention, showing the many facets of Fanny’s personality as she morphs from the perfect hostess and caring mother into someone who is more flint than fluff, ready to protect those she loves and make a moral stand. “Well, we’ve been shaken out of the magnolias,” she says, the full impact of the situation hitting home.
Andrew Long and Thomas Keegan
Director Jackie Maxwell brings her magic touch to an excellent supporting cast. Long’s performance is riveting. While Kurt loves his wife and children, standing up against fascism is a battle he fights for them. Long balances both sides of Kurt’s character, gentle with his wife and children one moment, lashing out against the count in another. As brave as Kurt is, it’s Bruneau’s Sara who stands out as the courageous one. Once Kurt leaves on his rescue mission, however, she laments what her life will be like without him. The three young actors, playing characters who have had to grow up much too soon, also display maturity beyond their years. These are three young people to watch.
Keegan’s David is the ballast steadying the family. Without his unconditional love and support, Kurt and Sara might have been left to fend for themselves. Besides turning in a strong performance, Keegan serves as the play’s fight captain, staging a scene that is both exciting and startling.
Crane’s evil count brings to mind other villains, mostly from films, who were never true believers but supported fascism for their own selfish reasons. These many years later, Hellman’s play still resonates.
Photos by C. Stanley Photography
Watch on the Rhine Fichandler Stage Arena Stage 1101 Sixth Street, SW Through March 5, 2017
Lillian Hellman’s drama about a Southern family motivated by secrets, lies, abuse, and greed comes alive at Arena Stage with a stellar cast deftly directed by Kyle Donnelly. The setting is Alabama in 1900, a state still recovering from the Civil War. Addie (Kim James Bey) and Cal (David Emerson Toney), no longer slaves, are still servants in the Giddens household. (And truly the only ones with any sense of right and wrong.) Regina Hubbard Giddens (Marg Helgenberger) seems to dominate the family, but she’s frustrated with her financial situation. In the early 20th century, only sons were considered heirs. So Regina seethes watching her brothers Benjamin (Edward Gero) and Oscar (Gregory Linington) enjoy the family’s wealth while she remains dependent on her husband, Horace (Jack Willis).
Hellman’s play holds up surprisingly well with themes that continue to resonate, particularly during this election year. The Little Foxes is part of Arena’s Lillian Hellman Festival. Watch on the Rhine, starring Marsha Mason, will be produced later in the season. There will also be staged readings, film screenings, and panel discussions to explore Hellman’s body of work.
Megan Graves and Kim James Bey
Superficially, the Giddens home has all the trappings of affluence and stability, the stage setting reflecting a more than comfortable existence for the family. (Set design, Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams; lighting, Nancy Schertler). Around the elegantly set dining room table, Regina plays hostess entertaining her brothers, Oscar’s wife, Birdie (Isabel Keating), and their son, Leo (Stanton Nash). But tensions roil underneath that cordial surface. Regina, who married Horace for his money, is disappointed that the match has not provided her with the financial freedom she desires. Oscar is dismissive and abusive of Birdie who self-medicates with alcohol. The Giddens daughter, Alexandra, called Zan (Megan Graves), adores her father, Horace, who has been away getting treatment for a serious heart condition. Largely ignored by Regina, Zan is taken under Birdie’s wing and watched over by Addie.
Gregory Linington, Edward Gero, and Stanton Nash
Benjamin and Oscar are out to increase their wealth by investing in a cotton mill. They need $75,000 and want Regina to ask Horace for the money. Horace has already given the brothers a thumbs down. (Oscar’s other plan for obtaining the money, to have Leo marry Alexandra, also is rejected by Horace.) So Leo, who works at the bank, steals Horace’s railroad bonds from a safety deposit box. Regina’s scheme to blackmail her brothers about the theft for a percentage of the mill is thwarted by Horace. Regina succeeds in the end, finally achieving financial independence, but at a huge cost.
Isabel Keating and Marg Helgenberger
As Regina, Helgenberger is a force to be reckoned with. Everything about her, from her strict posture to her steely gaze, sends the message that she is determined to succeed. There’s no evidence of the warm and helpful Catherine Willows from CSI. When she speaks, those honeyed southern tones are tinged with vinegar. The contrast with her daughter, Zan, is striking. Graves projects a youthful innocence in the first act, but by the end of the play, we witness her transformation, rejecting her mother’s values and ready to stand on her own. Even at this point, Regina can’t help but damn her daughter with faint praise. “Why Alexandra! You have spirit after all. I used to think you were all sugar water.”
Jack Willis, Marg Helgenberger, and Isabel Keating
Horace doesn’t appear until Act II, but when Willis enters, the effect is immediate. Moving slowly with a wooden walker, Willis’ Horace nonetheless is a powerful presence. There’s a touching moment between Horace, Birdie, Zan, and Addie, the four most likable characters in the household and in the play. They are comfortable with each other, their fondness and respect for Horace evident. Birdie, who overindulges in the elderberry wine served by Addie, has a laughing fit where she confesses she dislikes her son, Leo. (Keating’s performance here, and really throughout the play, is remarkable.) Horace’s medical condition adds to his concern for the three women and his worry that he won’t be around to protect them much longer. But he does what he can, telling Addie that he has left her $2,700, and revising his will to take care of Zan.
In contrast, Regina, never the doting wife, is not happy to have him home, and becomes further agitated when she discovers what he plans to do about the stolen bonds. She holds back nothing, telling Horace how much she despises him. And when he suffers a heart attack, she refuses to go upstairs to get his medication. He makes an attempt to climb the stairs, but collapses before he reaches the top. (The clever set, which includes a winding staircase, allows us to witness Horace’s futile climb.)
There are no real winners in the end. That quest for wealth and power at the expense of others always takes a toll. “Maybe it’s easy for the dying to be honest,” Horace tells Regina. “You’ll wreck the country, you and your kind, if they let you. But not me, I’ll die my own way, and I’ll do it without making the world worse. I’ll leave that to you.”