On Sunday, Neil Simon, the Bronx-born playwright and screenwriter who helped define twentieth-century American humor, passed away at the age of 91. Although Simon, during his decades atop the Broadway hierarchy, received seemingly every badge of recognition under the sun — seventeen Tony, four Oscar, and four Emmy nominations, respectively, plus a 1991 Pulitzer Prize, to boot — his work was frequently met, in the pages of the Village Voice, with less-than-glowing reception. In 2003, Voice theater critic Michael Feingold wrote of Rose’s Dilemma, Simon’s last produced play, that it “doesn’t mean anything to anybody and doesn’t reveal any understanding, on its author’s part, of how plays are written.” Feingold continued: “This was always Neil Simon’s weak point: Once a successful constructor of gag routines that could be crammed together to make evenings of theater, he’s never really bothered much about character and action — that is, about human beings and what they do.”
This reaction toward Simon’s work was not uncommon in the Voice — a strain of vitriol that Julius Novick directly addresses in “In Defense of Neil Simon,” an article from the December 31, 1970, issue, which opens with the question, “Why do people pick on poor Neil Simon?” (In a follow-up parenthetical, Novick clarifies what he means by “people”: “us radical liberals, us avant-gardists, us ‘Village Voice’ writers and readers, us enlightened ones.”) Novick, who contributed criticism to the Voice for decades, was writing on the occasion of The Gingerbread Lady, Simon’s 1970 play that lasted on Broadway for a mere handful of months, but nonetheless earned a Best Actress Tony for its star, Maureen Stapleton. At the time, Simon was still riding his first great wave of fame, just a few years removed from the mid-Sixties smashes — Barefoot in the Park (1963), The Odd Couple (1965) — that established his celebrity. “Simon,” Novick writes, “has become the ultimate contemporary symbol of Broadway success.”
Novick goes on to acknowledge certain shortcomings in Simon’s work, observing that his plays can be “so relevant to his own audience that it can seem very remote to anyone outside this audience.” But “if Mom and Dad from Great Neck really like this stuff,” Novick adds, “why should we try to make them feel uncomfortable about it? They are entitled to a little of the same tolerance from us that we demand from them.” And then, in a sentence that rings particularly true amid today’s opinion-mad social-media landscape, Novick states: “We ought to avoid trying to pass off our personal preferences as moral imperatives.”
Novick’s full “In Defense of Neil Simon” article is reprinted below. Return to the Voice throughout the rest of the week for additional coverage regarding Simon’s passing.
On a cloudy Thursday in March, I climbed two narrow flights of stairs to reach Laurie Metcalf in her dressing room in the Golden Theater, on 45th Street, where she’s appearing in the Edward Albee play Three Tall Women alongside Glenda Jackson and Alison Pill. There’s something simultaneously awe-inspiring and humbling about the backstage bowels of a nearly 100-year-old Broadway theater. On the one hand, you’re standing on the same hallowed ground where Glengarry Glen Ross made its Broadway premiere, where Falsettos and Avenue Q opened, where Mike Nichols and Elaine May helped shape a new era of comedy. On the other, to get back there, you have to enter through a dank alley squeezed between two buildings and filled with dumpsters.
It’s a humble ingress, but that suits a workhorse like Metcalf. “It’s always daunting to tackle a classic, because in the back of your mind you see ‘classic’ and you think you should be precious with it,” she says. “That you can’t be a little bit goofy, or you can’t show a sense of humor about your character unless it’s dictated by this classic script. But it’s fun to throw that out the window and look for it.” She sits with her legs crossed in the small but cozy room outfitted with a grey couch and a vanity mirror above a narrow dressing table. A side table holds a half-finished jigsaw puzzle made from a photograph of her grown son plowing a snowy field in Idaho, where Metcalf, who grew up in southern Illinois, owns property. The heat pipes start coughing just as I’m about to turn on my voice recorder, and when I jokingly complain, she gets up to turn it off with a look of such genuine concern I immediately regret opening my mouth.
True to its title, Three Tall Women — for which Albee won a Pulitzer Prize in 1994 — features three women credited only as “A,” a wealthy but ailing woman in her 90s, played by Jackson; “B,” A’s caregiver, in her 50s, played by Metcalf; and “C,” a woman in her mid-20s (Pill) who works for A’s law firm. In the first act, set in A’s ornate bedroom, the two younger women listen and interject, with varying degrees of patience, as A reflects on her life in a series of monologues; in its second half, the play shifts to a more metaphysical space, and all three women debate the merits and drawbacks of the different stages of their lives. It’s both darkly funny and undeniably melancholy.
Three Tall Women’s director, Joe Mantello, has described Metcalf (favorably) as a “monster,” an actor who “supplies you with such a variety and wealth of choices, and she doesn’t need a lot of guidance.” But, sitting within the pale-yellow walls of her dressing room, in jeans, a grey hoodie with the play’s logo screen-printed on the front, grey slippers, and zero makeup, Metcalf doesn’t look so scary. She looks both attentive and deeply absorbed by the task at hand — this interview, sure, but mostly the evening performance that begins in just under two hours. She reaches for her dog-eared copy of the script, stuffed with loose-leaf pieces of notepaper. “It’s been slippery,” she says of the run of preview performances, which ends when the play officially opens on Thursday. “Some of the emotions go from high to low really quickly. They’re very jerky. We went down a lot of blind alleys, trying to make it more naturalistic than it wants to be.”
Making something inherently artificial look natural is Metcalf’s superpower. It wasn’t too long ago when it seemed Metcalf had already reached a summit in her career, achieving in just 18 months the kind of success most actors would be lucky to manage over the course of a career. She was nominated for three Emmy awards in 2016, for turns on Horace and Pete, Getting On, and The Big Bang Theory; nine months later, she won her first Tony award, for the role of Nora Helmer in A Doll’s House, Part 2, Lucas Hnath’s adaptation of the famed Ibsen play. But now, the 62-year-old is wrapping up another whirlwind month. Not only is she starring alongside one of her idols, Jackson, in a Broadway production of an Edward Albee play (her first); she’s also reprising her role of Aunt Jackie in the buzzy new reboot of Roseanne, which returned to ABC this week 21 years after the groundbreaking sitcom went off the air.
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And then there was the weekend earlier this month when she had to jet to L.A. to attend the Oscars, for which she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress — her first Academy Award nomination — in Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, for her role as the title character’s devoted but brittle mother.
“Yeah, that was a tough one,” Metcalf says of the weekend of the Oscars, chewing on the drawstrings of her sweatshirt. “That’s like a dream. We did two shows, we did a two o’clock and an eight o’clock on a Saturday. The Oscars are on Sunday, so Sunday morning I went very, very early to the airport and my flight was delayed for two and a half hours. And everybody in L.A. is waiting for me to show up at this hotel room so I can get into hair and makeup and cost—” she stops herself. “I said ‘costume.’ It is a costume! So I landed, went straight there, went to the ceremony, didn’t go to any parties, came straight back to the hotel room, and got up the next day and came back.”
According to Metcalf’s co-star Alison Pill, the first day of rehearsals for Three Tall Women also happened to be the morning of the Oscar nominations. “I’m sure other actors would have brought some of that energy into the room,” Pill says. “But Laurie is an actor for whom the most important thing is building a character that serves the show and building an environment that serves the ensemble. So within minutes the Oscars were pushed to the side. I’m not sure many other actors would be capable of that.”
Metcalf lost to Allison Janney, who won for her performance as another tough mother in the Tonya Harding biopic I, Tonya. But if Metcalf was disappointed, she didn’t show it. Frankly, she doesn’t have time for that. She’s more comfortable plugging away in a dark, cramped theater than sunning herself in the spotlight, and she approaches her career with the steely-eyed focus of a sharp shooter. Doing press for Lady Bird while rehearsing Three Tall Women, she says, was “distracting.” “But, you know, that came and went,” she adds. “I’ll never have another March like this in my life, I know that.”
Will Frears, who directed her in the 2015–16 Broadway adaptation of Stephen King’s Misery — she snagged another Tony nomination for that one — recalls directing a play in 2004 for the legendary Chicago theater company Steppenwolf, which Metcalf and a group of fellow actor-friends founded in the 1970s. He didn’t meet her then, but, he says, “People spoke of her in these hushed tones.” Years later, when Frears was preparing to cast Misery, he drove out to meet Metcalf in the Hamptons, where she was doing a play. He was stuck in traffic and tried frantically to call her, to no avail. Finally, he arrived at the diner where they had planned to meet, and she told him not to worry — and that she’d left her cellphone at home. “You’re already the most impossibly cool person I know,” he recalls thinking.
Once they were rehearsing Misery, Frears was struck by Metcalf’s levelheadedness. “There’s no airs,” he says. “I think she wore the same flannel shirt every day in rehearsal.” She writes down notes in a steno pad after run-throughs, and talks about moments in the play she hasn’t yet “problem-solved.” Metcalf doesn’t dismiss the recognition her work has received in the past couple years, but she approaches it gingerly, as if not to disturb the foundation of her labor that it rests upon. “It’s satisfying when you get compliments from peers,” she acknowledges. “It all depends on if you feel like whatever you’re being acknowledged for, that you actually did do a good job on it — that you gave 150 percent, you poured everything that you could into it.” She finds freedom in theater, where no one is shoving a camera in your face; she feels self-conscious when she’s being filmed, and for nine years on the original run of Roseanne, from 1988 to 1997, she’d “shut down a little bit” on tape day.
All three actors in Three Tall Women give formidable performances, but when I saw the play, I was struck by how instinctive Metcalf’s performance looked — every word she spoke sounded like her own. When I mention this, her eyes widen and her face lights up. “Oh, that’s a huge compliment!” she says. “That’s the goal of interpreting, you know, is to make it look spontaneous and in the moment.” She pauses, pleased. “You didn’t see the typewritten words above my head!”
It takes a lot of sweat to make acting look so effortless — particularly comedic acting, which rarely earns performers the same kind of accolades as a dramatic role. But Metcalf is extraordinarily skilled at digging out the humor hidden in the most seemingly banal words. “She carves out every single moment to find the funniest delivery, the science behind the comedy or pathos of it,” Pill says. “These are small moments, but she will obsess and try things until it’s perfected.” Michael Fishman, who played youngest child D.J. Conner on Roseanne, was just six years old when the show began, and became close with Metcalf’s oldest daughter, Zoe Perry. (Perry’s father is Jeff Perry, another Steppenwolf co-founder; Metcalf has three other children with her now-ex-husband, Matt Roth, who played Jackie’s boyfriend Fisher on Roseanne.) Fishman told me he watched some of Metcalf’s best work on set take place when the camera wasn’t even on her, and he spoke of her meticulous method of adding layers of detail to a scene, even one in which she barely speaks.
“There’s an episode in the new season where she’s frustrated, and she’s cleaning up crumbs on the table,” he says. “She’s sweeping them into this little pile and you can just feel it building as the scene goes on, and as everybody walks away she’s building it and building it and building it, and she looks around and there’s nowhere to put them, and she takes the whole pile and just whacks it with the sponge and wipes them across the room. It was so perfect for the frustration she had throughout the scene, and it’s not in the script.”
Fishman adds, “I think she was underrated for a while because people didn’t fully grasp how detailed and nuanced she was. I think people have realized now. The secret’s out.”
I leave a few minutes before my time’s up, because Laurie Metcalf has a schedule to keep, and I’ll be damned if I get in the way of all that greatness. She goes over the script at 6:30 each evening before the show, saying every one of her lines out loud. “It’s very lonely,” she says. “But it’s a good mental and vocal warm-up.” I thank her for her time and slip back out into the alley.
A score of years ago the Upper West Side was known as one of the worst dining neighborhoods in the city. Well, what happened? You may trace the transformation back to the opening of Picholine, but there were other harbingers, too, so that now the finger-shaped neighborhood that runs along the west side of Central Park, and was immortalized in West Side Story, is now a bonafide dining destination, and you should have no compunction about going up there to eat, say, on a date. Here are our current favorite places.
10. Jacob’s Pickles – Pickles are the bedrock of this sprawling and fun-loving café, tarted up like an old-fashioned Jewish deli, and the pickles end up in nearly everything, including the slaw. But instead of pastrami and knishes, Jacob’s serves up southern fare with a Jewish flare, and the ridiculously large biscuit sandwiches (one is shown above) are not to be missed. 509 Amsterdam Avenue, 212-470-5566
9. Saiguette – This brand new joint has only a handful of counter seats, but it bests nearly every other Vietnamese place in town, in culinary excitement as well as in price. You won’t find a more perfect pho anywhere, the broth delicately scented with sweet spices and so damn good you’ll slurp it up before you taste your first rice noodle or nibble your first slice of brisket. 935 Columbus Avenue, 212-866-6888
8. Barney Greengrass – News of this century-old storefront’s demise always turns out to be exaggerated. With wonderful cured fish as its focus, Barney Greengrass (“The Sturgeon King”) is the Upper West Side’s answer to the Lower East Side’s Russ & Daughters, and you’d be hard pressed to tell which is better. No nicer place for a brunch of whitefish salad on a bagel, or nova with onions on rye, or scrambled eggs with sturgeon. 541 Amsterdam Avenue, 212-724-4707
The formal dining room at Barney Greengrass — a more informal deli-style space is found next door.
7. Gazala’s – This laid-back restaurant is an expanded version of the Hell’s Kitchen original – and it’s a hell of a lot more comfortable. Appetize with bread dips on gossamer-thin Israeli Druze pitas, and sup on sautéed quail, succulent lamb kebabs, or shakshuka (above), a North African poach of yellow-yolked eggs against a backdrop of deep-red tomato sauce. One further advantage to the Upper West Side edition: a full liquor license. 380 Columbus Avenue, 212-873-8880
6. Gray’s Papaya – The natural-skin franks at this Upper West Side cheap-eats institution are every bit as good as Nathan’s – in fact they’re made in the same New Jersey factory. This relentlessly yellow joint hops 24 hours a day, and we can’t think of a better symbol of Upper West Side fast eats. Mustard is a given. Your only dilemma: onions or kraut? 2090 Broadway, 212-799-0243
5. Caffe Storico – Nowadays we’ve come to expect great restaurants in the city’s museums, but in the New-York Historical Society? There amid the staid exhibits of bygone buildings and framed bird prints, find one of the Upper West’s greatest refectories, purveying Italian dishes small and large such as the wonderful whipped baccala (potatoes, olive oil, and salt cod) shown below. Wash it down with wines from a distinguished list. 170 Central Park West, 212-485-9211
4. Osteria Cotta – How did this place edge out Caffe Storico? Well, the excellent sidewalk seating area would be one reason, and also similar-quality food at cheaper prices. The broad range of bruschetti is a boon to wine sippers in the warmer months, the pastas scintillating in their freshness (linguine with baby clams shown is better here than anywhere else). And then there are the vegetable composed salads and Naples-style pizzas, which are very good of their type. Just wait for the cool evening breezes of summer to arrive.513 Columbus Avenue, 212-873-8500
3. Boulud Sud – Any of the three Daniel Boulud restaurants arranged around the corner of 64th and Broadway right across from iconic Lincoln Center are worth checking out, from the New Wave charcuterer Bar Boulud to the upscale fast food Epicerie. But Boulud Sud – offering the sunny food of Provence and points beyond – is the best, an exceedingly bright spot in the Upper West Side dining firmament, with an excellent soupe de poisson, ratatouille with a poached egg blossoming on top, and a mind-bogglingly good sardine escabeche. And don’t miss the desserts, either! Via pastry chef Ghaya F. Oliveira. 20 West 64th Street, 212-595-1313
2. Thai Market – Yes, there are decent Siamese restaurants in Hell’s Kitchen, but this place rapidly hispterizing Amersterdam Avenue on the Upper Upper West Side around 107th Street beats them all. If you request it, the food will be far hotter, the sauces more tart, the portions more generous. And fish sauce is not anathema to the place’s distinguished cooks. The setting, duded up to look like a southeast Asian market, is a pleasure, too. The fiery raw-shrimp dish called goong chae nampla shown above. 960 Amsterdam Avenue, 212-280-4575
1. Telepan – Telepan is NYC’s answer to Chez Panisse, a secluded restaurant on the ground floor of a rusticated brownstone apartment house with a chef (Bill Telepan) who cherishes local and sustainable values, transforming the raw materials thus acquired into some of the best and most elegantly plated food in town. On a recent revisit we loved the creamy homemade burrata and the lobster Bolognese, and the three-course prix fixe puts the place within reach of nearly any dining budget. 72 West 69th Street, 212-580-4300
Burger patties flaming in the window of Big Nick’s
Four years ago, FitR inaugurated Our 10 Best series. For most of that time, we’ve put it up at 8 on Friday mornings — but now we’re going to start posting it Monday at 7 a.m. instead. This Monday, look for Our 10 Best Upper West Side Restaurants, the first time we’ve ranked the restaurants in that neighborhood — which was originally designed to look like Paris, and still does.
With its excellent thick burgers cooked over flame at relatively cheap prices and in dozens of permutations, will Big Nick’s — a Broadway fixture since 1962 — be among the top 10? Will newcomers like Dovetail make the cut?
We’ve spent three solid weeks revisiting old places and checking out new ones. We’ve had setbacks, but we’re confident that we’ve come up with a solid list of the best places to eat on the Upper West Side.
So please tune in bright and early Monday morning to check out Our 10 Best Upper West Side restaurants.
Big Nick’s matzo ball soup is fine, too, but why is that garlic knot floating among the matzo balls?.
A fixture right on Broadway on the Upper West Side, Big Nick’s Burger Joint has been around since 1962 — just about the time West Side Story came out as a movie, immortalizing the neighborhood for the nation. Big Nick’s is a product of that merging of low and high culture, operatic and down-and-dirty at the same time. Always in danger of extinction, the place is like a Greek dinosaur on acid. Sure you can go easy on yourself and order one of several dozen burgers, but why not take the wild route and get one of their special — and especially strange — sandwiches?
Yes it’s on the expensive side, but it would take two to finish it.
A case in point is the “potato and pot roast melt on a hero.” As at Primanti’s in Pittsburgh, the potatoes are intended to go inside the sandwich, but at Big Nick’s they start out on the outside, and you have to shove them in yourself. That means there’s also plenty of these spiced waffle fries still on the outside to eat along with the hero, which is unaccountably termed a submarine, even though that’s not the nomenclature common in these latitudes.
Inside the sandwich? A good quantity of wonderfully grainy pot roast — a meat rarely found in restaurants these days, melted white cheese, caramelized onions and peppers (in a strange Italian twist), and a toasted coating of garlic on the inside of the demi-baguette, which is a relatively distinguished loaf, as sandwich bread goes.
So all you have to do is line the thing with waffle fries, pour on some meat drippings from the little plastic cup, and even put the sour pickles inside there if you so desire. Then eat.
Ablaze in neon, even during the daytime, Big Nick’s Burger Joint
What a winter Guy Fieri has had. Pete Wells can’t stand him. Drake gets to Instagram with him. SNL pressed pause on a sketch about him. But Broadway just wants more of him. Last night the Diners, Drive-ins and Dives host made a guest appearance in Rock of Ages. And someone made a four-minute mini-documentary about it.
In this clip, the “new guy on the block” — yes, Guy’s American Kitchen and Bar is on the same block as Rock of Ages‘ theater — seems to be appalled at the idea of wearing a costume. But we’re like, “Guy! You always wear a costume!” Because we later learn “costume” means a leather vest decorated in studs and red flames that will soon be hung up at Guy’s American. Rock on, Guy.