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‘In Defense of Neil Simon’: Revisit a Voice Critic’s Appreciation of the Late New York Playwright

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.

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Honoring Molly Haskell: A Review of “The Out-of-Towners”

This week, the New York Film Critics Circle gave a special award to Molly Haskell, one of America’s foremost film scholars and a pioneering feminist critic. Haskell, author of the essential study From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies and other books (including a recent one on Steven Spielberg), wrote for the Village Voice throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s. As a tribute, this week we are featuring selections from our archives. (Earlier this week, we posted her review of Gator, her review of The Story of Adele H, and a 1975 dialogue–joint review with Andrew Sarris of Robert Altman’s classic Nashville.) Here now is Haskell’s 1975 review of Arthur Hiller and Neil Simon’s The Out-of-Towners.

The Out-Of-Towners
By Molly Haskell
June 4, 1970

On the assumption that no situation is so grim that a few laughs can’t be wrung out of it (look at Feiffer and Buchwald on Nixon), Neil Simon ought to have been able to find the meat on whatever bones of humor are left in the spectacle of disaster, dishonesty, and decay we call New York City. Mr. Simon not only has a geiger counter for laugh lines, but he is a New Yorker. In most of his plays (in fact, all that I’ve seen), New York City lurks like a heavy in the background, having already sown seeds of environmental neurosis which Simon’s intransigently unswinging suburbanites must somehow contend with.

It is a hydra which manifests itself in diverse ways according to character and situation: as a restaurant called “Queen of the Sea” which has tainted the fumbling fingers of the red hot lover; as a five-floor, mother-defying walk-up of a pair of newlyweds; as a seedily West Side apartment both too big and too small for the odd couple; and as the intimidating aura of a suite at the Plaza.

Until The Out-of-Towners, Simon’s first script written directly for the screen, New York has always played a secondary (if significant) role. Here it is the central character, springing its little surprises in the best tradition of guerrilla warfare. The film, directed with little gradation by Arthur Hiller, is a comedy of situations rather than character. (Even so, Simon is compelled to whitewash the statistics in order not to offend anyone and to keep it a comedy.) Simon has devoted his attention to enumerating the presumably hilarious misadventures which could befall an unsuspecting couple (Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis) from Dayton: circling New York and finally landing in Boston, taking the train down, losing their baggage, suffering from two muggings, garbage and transportation strikes, becoming involved in a robbery and a political demonstration, etc., but has given only secondary attention to the characters themselves. The couple’s actions and reactions are determined in an ad hoc basis, according to the demands of situation and mood contrast (of which there is only too little) rather than any consistent characterization.

As George Kellerman, executive from Dayton, Jack Lemmon (and for this Hiller must be more than partially blamed) comes on in hysteria and must overreact from then on. I couldn’t help thinking, as he inveighed violently against airline representatives and hotel clerks, that this is just the kind of jerk against which New York initially erected its protective shell of indifference, now institutionalized. In his horror of appearing emasculated, the Lemmon character pushes every encounter into a confrontation, from which he must emerge as master or victim. His helplessness is occasionally the helplessness of an out-of-towner, but more often that of a fool, in situations which are not inevitable but arise from his own incompetence and/or insecurity. Arriving in New York on the train instead of flying down the next morning for his appointment (slavish behavior for a top executive), he drags his wife through a downpour to their hotel and, insisting that he knows the way (virility being jeopardized by the asking of directions), gets lost. As the wife, Sandy Dennis behaves with considerable cool and, under the circumstances, sniffles less than she is entitled to.

Because Simon is dealing with a place — and a commonplace — rather than people, it is only too easy to see the jokes coming long before they arrive. We feel the boredom of anticipation rather than the shock of recognition, and sometimes the jokes themselves ring false. Example: when Lemmon, discussing with his wife the prospective joys of living in New York, says that everybody knows how good the New York public schools are! You would have to be Rip van Winkle rising from a 10-year slumber in Siberia to make a statement like that.

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Keira Knightley Reveals the Secret Behind Her Spanking Scene!

From the second Keira Knightley shrieks her way into A Dangerous Method for a Carl Jung talking cure that ultimately leads to a spanking session, I was in love with her fiery performance. The 26-year-old British actress—who segues blithely from franchise sequels to art films—plays the troubled Sabina Spielrein in the David Cronenberg–directed look at the early days of psychoanalysis.

Her take on the hysteria-laden human catalyst has divided people like Jung himself did, but I admired her guts enough to lay her on my Naugahyde couch for a searing interrogation about it last week.

“I’ve never done anything like that,” Knightley told me, “and I was amazed that David offered it to me. I thought, ‘If he’s going to offer me something like this, I’m just gonna go for it.’ I knew nothing about psychoanalysis or Freud or Jung, so I did research to find out what made her behave the way she did.”

And . . . ? “Although she’s a masochist,” complied Knightley, “she would have sadistic sides of her personality. Sadomasochism is a circle. A masochist will find a sadist, and if they can’t, they will become the sadist. It also involves playing a victim and being manipulative and forcing people into positions they’re uncomfortable with.” I know, dear, I know.

Knightley says Sabina transferred her feelings about her father onto Jung (Michael Fassbender), whom she loved and hated at the same time. And did Knightley herself love/hate getting whooped by the Shame star? “I was concerned about those scenes,” she admitted. “David Cronenberg said, ‘If you’re uncomfortable with them, we’ll just take it out.’ I didn’t want that to happen because I knew it was important for the story and not gratuitous at all. We discussed how he would shoot it and the purpose of the scenes, and it became easier for me to film them because I knew the reason they were there.”

And it probably helped that her butt never bristled, even after multiple takes. “I didn’t actually get spanked,” she revealed. “He didn’t actually touch me. He hit a box.” And, yes, the box was union.

“The character is fascinating to me,” added Knightley, “because of the amazing struggle she fought her whole life. It wasn’t like a miracle cure. This is someone constantly fighting with the side of herself that wanted to destroy everything, herself included.”

As for those who have transferred their feelings about their father onto A Dangerous Method, Knightley says: “It was always going to be a controversial film. It’s not going to be everybody’s cup of tea. You come up with a bland piece when you try to please everyone.”

Even more period self-destruction awaits in Anna Karenina, the remake she and Jude Law have wrapped for Joe Wright (who also Wrighted her in Pride and Prejudice and Atonement). “It’s a very different version,” Knightley told me. “There’s definitely a concept behind it that’s different from the others.” Perhaps a story within a story? “No, but yes, but no,” she responded, obliquely.

And what’s the story with The Children’s Hour, the stage melodrama Knightley revived in London last year? “The movie disturbed me as a young lesbian,” I smirked. “Is it really still relevant?”

“When we started rehearsing it,” Knightley replied, unfazed, “a student in America had said she’d seen a teacher kissing another [same-sex] teacher in the school. Ellen Burstyn brought the news article to rehearsal and said, ‘If anyone says the play isn’t relevant, tell them about this.’ It’s not just the homophobic aspect of it. The story is about what happens with a lie and how we’re so quick to judge people.”

Don’t be quick to judge Keira Knightley. Analysis reveals her to be perfectly fine, spank you very much.

And Now for a Gossip Cure

I also got to analyze director Stephen Daldry about Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, the one about the boy and the mute unraveling a mystery left by the kid’s father, who died on 9/11. “The kid’s journey is trying to make sense out of something that doesn’t make sense,” Daldry told me at 21. “The kid creates his own therapy, and the mother then colludes.” Better than a talking cure, I’m sure. But how was my girl Sandra Bullock, pray tell? “She was like a proper partner in the movie and a proper leading lady,” he said, admiringly. Alas, while James Gandolfini played her proper boyfriend, the footage got ba-da-binged. As for Daldry, he’s going on to co-direct the Olympics, but he’s not going to make it about a boy looking for a father figure.

At a recent tribute to hot daddy Larry King, comic Colin Quinn mercifully seized things by the suspenders and it turned into a roast. I just ran into Quinn and told him how funny he was, and he impishly replied, “That was the longest night of my life!”

Comedy legend Neil Simon recently had a short night of entertainment. I hear Simon sat down for what he thought was an Academy screening of the animated film Alois Nebel. But Simon had written down the wrong time and soon realized he was actually at Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked. He mutinied after five minutes.

Another comic near-miss: A source tells me that at Barney’s recently, Meg Ryan bumped into Nora Ephron, the woman behind three of Meg’s smashes. Or she almost did. The two were within feet of each other’s oversize sunglasses, but they simply proceeded in different ways! Weird! Unless they just didn’t recognize each others’ faces.

In other female shopping gossip, guess what Oprah Winfrey doesn’t have on when she wears a track suit, according to a close personal souse, I mean source? Underwear! All the better for some Jungian spanking scenes.

musto@villagevoice.com

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Cromer Darkens Simon’s Memoirs; Marber Misdates Miss Julie; Ordinary Days are Just That

Honesty, dignity, and Neil Simon. No, I know what you mean: I didn’t expect to be writing those three terms in sequence any more than you expected to read them in this column. But you also already know the invisible fourth term that connects them: David Cromer. Among Broadway’s money folk, Cromer has apparently become the new buzzword in directing. This is a pity: Artists shouldn’t be reduced to buzzwords; the buzzing makes people lose sight of the many other fine directors around; and Cromer’s future would probably be more exciting if he could generate his own projects instead of being blitzkrieged with commercial offers. But meantime, he has directed the revival of Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs (Nederlander Theatre), contiguous with his Off-Broadway productions of Our Town and the musical Adding Machine in that it gives an old work a new look that reaffirms its value.

Not that Brighton Beach Memoirs (1983) ever laid claim to any particularly high value. I doubt that even those who rate it and its two follow-up plays about the lives of Eugene Morris Jerome and his family, Biloxi Blues (1985) and Broadway Bound (1988), among Simon’s highest achievements would say it ranks with Our Town. For me, frankly, the hard part has always been regarding it as a play. Most of Simon’s works, with their accumulations of one-liners heaped up with little regard for character or situation, fall into the category for which I long ago coined the helpful term “gagpile.” The original production of Brighton Beach Memoirs, despite its castful of first-rate actors, put the play squarely in that Simonian line. The laughs, immaculately timed, were plentiful; moment to moment, the individual characters’ feelings were precisely placed. But there was no sense of family, of poverty, of Jewish Brooklyn. Everything looked comfy and bright; the Jeromes might have been celebrating Christmas in Hollywood instead of facing the Depression on Sheepshead Bay.

With Cromer, things have changed. Most of the laughs are still there, but the Jerome house, circa 1938, seems older, darker, wearier. Between John Lee Beatty’s muted green set and Jane Greenwood’s mostly brown costumes, the look suggests a faded sepia photograph; Brian MacDevitt’s somber lights evoke a house whose tenants worry about the electric bill. The jokes are tossed off as they crop up, but the emotions linger: Cromer has paid Simon’s play the compliment of taking it seriously. As a result, at least for me, it actually has for the first time the substantive feel of a play.

Teenager Eugene (Noah Robbins), his older brother, Stan (Santino Fontana), and their parents, Jack and Kate (Dennis Boutsikaris and Laurie Metcalf), have as their unwanted, non-paying boarders Kate’s widowed sister, Blanche (Jessica Hecht), and her two daughters. Jack and Stan supply the clan’s meager income, on which Kate struggles to keep house, with little help from neurasthenic, shortsighted Blanche. When Stan loses his weekly wages just as overwork temporarily fells Jack, an explosion is ready to occur. In Cromer’s hands, because the intensity of the conflict in each scene is sustained, the tension that builds to the climactic quarrel, during which unforgivable things get said about everybody, comes more from the pent-up frustration of two families forced to share a house intended for one than from the contrived sequence of plot crises that Simon has carefully balanced on top of each other.

The material gets shown up as conventionally sentimental—father turns out to know best, the unforgivable remarks get forgiven, and the family readjusts to a slightly saner routine—but the sentiment now packs its full resonant effect, because the play has been staged to hold together as a play, with something at stake for each character all through. This approach reveals that Simon, whose work often seems structurally cardboard-y, has here built solidly and painstakingly. Because of Cromer, we can see that Brighton Beach Memoirs fits a pattern once popular on Broadway of naturalistic family comedies in which the homey atmosphere, and the solving of multiple small crises, sent audiences back to their own homes and crises in a feel-good glow. Cromer has somewhat acidified the glow—with Hecht, in particular, pushing her character to the edge of grotesquerie—but the good feeling is there, among the astringent tones and the wattage-saving shadows, making the woes of a bad era seem both real and conquerable. Which is what the honest sentiment of old-fashioned Broadway plays was for.

The Roundabout, presumably striving to atone for the avert-your-eyes train wreck of Bye Bye Birdie, has come up with two competently produced offerings that would seem more impressive if they had some artistic reason for existing. The main trouble with Patrick Marber’s After Miss Julie (American Airlines Theatre) is that it comes too long after: Set in 1945, when the Labour Party’s postwar electoral victory signaled the end of aristocratic privilege in England, Marber’s adaptation of Strindberg’s 1888 play takes place in an era when a Lordship’s haughty daughter might know, not only Strindberg’s original, but also 25 years’ worth of loose sexual behavior by girls of her ilk, including five wartime years when England’s stately homes were crammed with evacuees and military officers of indiscriminately mixed social classes. The notion that, in this context, Julie (Sienna Miller) could be so repressed, and get so guilt-racked, over her Daddy’s chauffeur, John (Jonny Lee Miller), seems as untenable as the idea that said chauffeur would deign to clean his master’s boots. Mark Brokaw, directing, tries to mask these anomalies by pumping up his stars’ emotional volume, till Strindberg’s taut story gets blasted into absurdity; only Marin Ireland, playing John’s fiancée, registers as real.

Adam Gwon’s Ordinary Days (Roundabout Underground) is a pallid, tenuous, incessantly pattery little musical, about four pallidly characterized people, that lives down to its title. Gwon is worth encouraging, though his lyrics at present show much more skill than his music does. But the assumption that this sketchy 80-minute event constituted a full evening of theater fits the pattern of an institution where artistic decisions seem to be made randomly, not responsibly.

mfeingold@villagevoice.com

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FAMILY MATTERS

What’s the best way to stage Neil Simon’s seminal evocation of a New York childhood? Apparently you get a guy from Chicago to do it. David Cromer, who recently helmed the renowned Our Town, will direct Simon’s autobiographical celebration of this town, running in repertory with Broadway Bound.

Starts: Oct. 2. Daily, 2009

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Cold Feet

The gloom over the new revival of Barefoot in the Park is no surprise to me: In my book, Neil Simon was never a playwright. Forty years ago, a canny director and lovable actors could make this thin string of jokes seem adorable, but decades after the candy’s been eaten, who needs the stale box?

The tenuous tale of a newlywed couple’s struggles with a tiny Greenwich Village flat would look quaintly passé today even if there were some reality to it, but Scott Elliott’s direction, passionately pursuing the minutiae of the reality that isn’t there, snuffs out any slight hint of playfulness. Amanda Peet, as the would-be bohemian young wife, acts strictly by the numbers. The dubious midlife romance of her suburban mom and the shifty sybarite upstairs is embodied by Jill Clayburgh and Tony Roberts, solid but resolutely uncomic professionals who can service an existing laugh (the script holds about six) but not create a new one. Only Patrick Wilson, skilled at taking center stage in musicals, brings dimension and humor to the role of the priggish bridegroom. And speaking of reality, Elliott’s choice of ’60s music is as far from the characters’ tastes as Isaac Mizrahi’s self-conscious designer clothes would be from their wardrobes.

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NY Mirror

I’ve been telling you for three months about Tuesday nights at Happy Valley, the medium-sized dance club located, conveniently enough, just a kidney stone’s throw away from my house. Well, now that mainstream-media outlets have caught wise to the thing, let me refresh your palate with an inside view of what it is and why it makes me whole again. The event is sexy, demented, and diverse, a magical bit of nouveau old-style nightlife as handed over by a capricious God, who’s decided to stop punishing us bar whores for a spell to make up for the no-smoking rule (which everyone ignores anyway, cough, cough, vomit). It’s a multisexual Brigadoon—a reawakened bit of lunacy as hosted by the ultimate female drag queen, SUSANNE BARTSCH
, and sci-fi gender explosion KENNY KENNY for their friends, fans, and most cherished freakazoids.

Their foofy following consists half of weirdies and half of hotties, a mix that works much better than it should, mainly because they’re all weirdies under the skin. The drag queens are more outlandish than ever—they’re eight feet tall, six feet wide, bald, bearded, and bespectacled—and they coexist with the unspeakably cute (and twisted) guys with an ease that more niche-specific clubs would be terrified of.

The anti–AMY SACCO, La Bartsch—who with her pint-size muscleman hubby DAVID BARTON plays Barnum to their son, BAILEY—has come back, like a revivified sea monkey, to her classic getups, sparkle, and endearing neurosis. (Every week, she’s convinced the place will be empty. Every week it’s fuller than AMANDA LEPORE‘s bra would be if she were wearing one.) Kenny, meanwhile, is the amused urchin perennially uplifted by his spiritual retreats to India, while fur-bearing co-owner FABRIZIO BRIENZA sails through the place with his sexy Italian eyelids at half-mast, tacitly reminding you that this is all straight out of Fellini by way of the Olive Garden commercials.

That trio of nuts is matched by the place’s three madcap levels: the downstairs, where the hardcore freaks unravel to DJ RYAN MCKNIGHT‘s bouncy retro kitsch; the main floor, which is for sloppy-dancing to more au courant tones; and the balcony, which has alkies posing, sprawling, and ogling whoever’s in the go-go booth, where all imaginable genders have shimmied and shined.

The kids have sucked up this bash because they’re tired of hearing about all the pre-GIULIANI mayhem and want to finally grab something similar (but ultra current) for themselves, while the oldies have found it their miraculous chance to take off the Norma Desmond turbans and seize back their own piece of the night. In the process, there have been some dark moments—like when I reminded a bartender that my group’s drinks had been authorized as comp and he furiously lifted them up and slammed them into the garbage pail. (It was all worked out later.) But without a touch of crass, I wouldn’t trust that this place was more than just a taunting mirage. Long may it carpet my Valley.


ABEL AND WILLING

Raise some fizzy water to Motherfucker, the roving rock-freak bash that now has the extra attraction of a giant camera attached, and no it’s not a colonoscope. The event has become the mascara-laden subject of a documentary in progress, and unlike the three other club docs I’ve been interviewed for, it looks like this one might actually come out.

The nose-candied line dance that was Studio 54 is going big-screen again thanks to manic director ABEL FERRARA, who tells me he’s doing a gangster movie partly set at the legendary ’70s club. Ferrara is searching for actors who look like co-owner Steve Rubell and company to match actual disco-era footage, which is good news for me—I’m a dead ringer for both BIANCA JAGGER and the horse she rode in on.

Gay college student Saturdays at Heaven are so hormonally zingy they should call the place Studio 18-to-20. Skinny guys alternate between messily making out with anyone else with frosted hair and flailing arms and getting into some Discovery Channel–worthy fag-fag-fag-hag combos on the dancefloor. “How does this place manage to keep away all the old, lecherous trolls?” I earnestly asked a door worker. “I don’t know,” he said as I fell through a hidden trapdoor.

I’m plummeting even farther now that my job at the gay premium channel Q TV is faygeleh history. The troubled enterprise just canned virtually all its programming, and I’m now loving Logo more than ever.

Causing much uplift, I Googled JOHN PAULUS and came up with scads of entries on the late Pope John Paul II. (Someone had better alert the Vatican.) But Paulus, of course, is the guy who says he had an Internet-orchestrated hookup with CLAY AIKEN and apparently kept the cum rag as proof. (He’s MONICA LEWINSKY and LINDA TRIPP combined. Sex scandals happen much more efficiently nowadays.) On the phone last week, the ex–Green Beret reminded me that he felt used by the “Jekyll and Hyde” Aiken (whose RCA flack had no comment on Paulus’s claims). “He led me to think he was looking for a friendship,” he said, “and we’d build upon that. But all he wanted was sex right away.” In case you haven’t heard the details, Paulus swears this involved Aiken pushing Paulus’s head toward his dick; shoving said member in Paulus’s ass (“I jumped off it and said ‘Clay!’ ” Paulus told me, but he must have jumped back—”I bottomed out for like an hour” he added); and Aiken unsuccessfully trying to fist him too. (Well, the singer himself had already gotten so many thumbs-up from Simon.)

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But how upset can someone be if he let Clay-for-play plow him without a condom for, like, an hour? “I take responsibility,” admitted Paulus (who six years ago slept with another superstar, but won’t name him—he was nice). “But sometimes you get caught up with the celebrity thing and you don’t think properly.” Now he’s less starstruck, especially since he says Clay’s post-orgasm behavior involved barking “Go grab me a fucking cloth to wash this off”and splitting, sans niceties. “I felt like some cheap whore,” said Paulus. “It would have been worse if he had left $100 on the nightstand. And there he was two hours later online meeting people!” (Paulus must have been back on there looking for another friendship.)

The weird upshot of all this is that Clay’s fans are way angrier at Paulus for spilling the jizz than they are at their idol for being endlessly evasive (though Page Six reported that a few do want to sue the singer). “When someone destroys their fantasy,” Paulus told me, “they lash out at that person, not the one they adore. His Christian fans tell me this is nothing but an organized gay tactic to undermine a Christian guy. But I’m Christian. You can’t be gay and Christian now?” Sure you can—remember that Google search?—and you can be a porn star too; Paulus is now working for gay-adult-film titan MICHAEL LUCAS, who’ll leave money on his nightstand. He’s also on the club rounds; I saw him at, yep, Happy Valley, where he was deep in talk with CARSON KRESSLEY. (“Nothing dirty,” Carson assured me afterward, “but when I took down his number, I accidentally erased BETTY BUCKLEY‘s!”)


DIS DIS

Boldface lips touch in PATRICK MCMULLAN‘s Kiss Kiss photo book, but at his party at Pre/Post, I came closer to more intimate parts. Smack in the middle of the buffet table were two barely clad gals and a guy, a hired tableau that prompted McMullan associate SAM BOLTON to note, “The pussy is freshly shaved, and so is the parmesan!” In another corner, ROCCO DISPIRITO‘s ex-drag friend VICTORIA HILTON started a mini fire with an errant napkin (talk about flaming queen) and John Paulus turned up, presumably to scope out the cheese assortment and wash it down.

In more legit romantic- comedy news, the Broadway revival of NEIL SIMON‘s Barefoot in the Park reminded me that this is pretty much the same play as Simon’s The Odd Couple: Two opposites move in and have a house party with a couple of other kooks, after which they bitterly fight and try to make up. It’s also a little like Rabbit Hole in that the nutty but wise mom—JILL CLAYBURGH here, TYNE DALY in Hole—walks off with the show, shoes or not. The rest of the production can’t camouflage the play’s dated qualities, but it doesn’t deserve the angry All That Chat post “SCOTT ELLIOTT Murders Neil Simon!”

But back to American idylls: Remember the Grammys, when KELLY CLARKSON thanked her date, saying she was “my first producer in my closet back home when I was a kid?” Well, JACKIE CLARKE of Free FM’s Jake and Jackie Show says, “Kelly, if you’re gonna mention date, don’t mention closet in the same breath.” You too, Clay Aiken.


WEB EXTRA

I recently quoted drag diva LADY BUNNY‘s immortal joke: “How does CLAY AIKEN remove a condom? He farts!” Well, now it’s become apparent that Bunny’s going to have to rewrite it—a lot—because according to JOHN PAULUS, Clay’s a top and besides, he doesn’t USE condoms! (Don’t you hate when messy behavior interferes with classic humor?) Please send your suggestions for a more realistic replacement joke.


WEB EXCLUSIVE

Stop everything. Sadly enough, I just heard that Hairspray‘s Tony winning score collaborators and longtime boyfriends MARC SHAIMAN and SCOTT WITTMAN are splitsville as a couple. But they’re still working together on the musical of Catch Me if You Can. You can’t stop the beat!

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musto@villagevoice.com

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A Very Odd ‘Couple’ Indeed, Lane and Broderick Push Simon Back Toward Sitcom

Unlike the bulk of Neil Simon’s work, The Odd Couple is very nearly a play for about two-thirds of its length. It has characters who are, with one exception, close to three-dimensional human existence; it has a believable situation from which understandable conflicts arise; and only a small percentage of its dialogue sounds as if the characters kept a resident gag writer on the premises. Later Simon plays would pursue all of The Odd Couple‘s weaknesses, instead of its strengths, with dismaying success, and they would lack, to boot, the mythic image at its core which is the real secret of this comedy’s strength: two hopelessly incompatible people who are, nonetheless, friends for life and inextricably bound together. Messy, heedless Oscar and fastidious, overcautious Felix are an iconic pair, classic enough in their mismatch to rank with the great comic teams. The only hard part is figuring out how they got to be friends: The bond is far harder to understand than that of, say, Dionysus and Xanthias or Sir Peter and Lady Teazle, and neither of those unlikely couples sat down to play cards with the same four amiable lugs every weekend. Fifteen minutes of Felix’s obsessive-compulsive fussing with clean ashtrays and room deodorizer could permanently destroy any poker party, and it’s hard to imagine his even being willing to sit down in the chaos of debris and dirty laundry that Oscar’s apartment has become after six wifeless months.

Joe Mantello’s heavily anticipated (and already sold out) new production shows both The Odd Couple‘s strengths and its weaknesses. Salted with plot twists that still twist and jokes that still tickle, the comedy wends its way through enough laughs to make a pleasant evening, and Nathan Lane, while giving Oscar dimension and pathos, mines quite a few more. Lee Wilkof and Peter Frechette, unsurprisingly, give him effective help as two of his four cronies. (Wilkof’s slouch as he reluctantly crosses to answer the door is the evening’s best sight gag.) Matthew Broderick, conversely, is almost too perfectly cast as Felix: Playing to the character’s inhibitions, he creates a figure who’s beyond odd—far too weird to be imaginable at this poker party. This tends to loosen the play’s grounding in humanity and pull it toward the more fantastical kind of vaudeville sketch comedy, in which the characters’ distance from reality is underscored. Along with some supporting performances that lack the depth provided by Wilkof and Frechette, the eerie figure that Broderick cuts thins the play’s overall effect, moving it away from its roots in human nature and towards its flickering end in TV sitcom. Art Carney, creating the role in 1965, was of course escaping not only from the two-dimensional world of sitcom but from a loutish role (Norton on The Honeymooners) far closer to Oscar than to Felix; the audience that came in with TV expectations had the extra pleasure of watching him invent a character wholly unlike what they “knew” him to be. It’s Broderick’s ill luck to have played fussy and repressed roles before, but the repertory company that would allow him to break out of his familiar persona and play Oscar instead hasn’t yet been created, and isn’t likely to turn up on Broadway any decade soon.

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ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES Theater

Semi-Sweet

How do we define a great musical? If we mean one that can bring pleasure a second or third time around, even in an inferior revival, then Sweet Charity is a not-quite-great musical: It has the qualities that bring survival, but it has them wanly, only to a minor degree. Its story is mildly interesting rather than involving. The book being by Neil Simon, it has no characters beyond the hero and heroine; the other folk are mainly there to deliver the jokes. (Which are Neil Simon jokes: They’re not really funny but you laugh anyway.) The Cy Coleman-Dorothy Fields songs, the show’s strongest asset, are an uneven lot, with some top-drawer numbers and a few too many from the middle drawer, though, as always with Coleman, there is apparently no bottom drawer; everything is wonderfully crafted musically, harmonically alive, and rhythmically tickling. Fields’s lyrics are up to her standard, which means always freshly heard but sometimes less than perfectly wrought. Whatever the writers’ shortcomings, the quality is there in the material, waiting for artists who can bring it back to life.

But Charity‘s not so easy to revive. Built in an equivocal time (1966), when the art of the Broadway musical was beginning to run down, it’s a quirky creature that demands sensitive handling. Its makers were practitioners of old-time showmanship, whose preferred mode was the Broadway of one-liners and razzmatazz. Trying to adapt themselves to the musical’s newer, Rodgers-and-Hammerstein “serious” vein, they had to stretch their creative muscles, and you often feel the strain. Sweet Charity is not based on a standard comic situation from some affectionately regarded old American book, play, or movie; it’s one of the few Broadway musicals based on a foreign film, a somberly ironic one at that: Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria. Certain things were naturally toned down to reassure Broadway’s expense account sensibilities: Fellini’s Cabiria is a prostitute; Simon’s Charity Hope Valentine is what used to be called a taxi dancer. This makes the show an anomaly in its time: Manhattan’s pay-to-dance halls had all but vanished by the mid ’60s, when Charity is supposed to take place, giving way to the peepshows and massage parlors of an increasingly seedier Times Square. Hence Charity is a quasi-realistic show that takes place in no discernible reality.

What eases an audience over Charity‘s reality gaps is, or should be, its showmanship. The shakier a musical’s basic materials are, the more it needs the cunning flamboyance of designers, choreographic imagination and energy, swift and knowingly detailed direction, character actors quick to characterize, and most of all a star’s charisma. Charity ran in 1966, and again in 1986, because it had all those things (a little diminished in 1986). The current production, to its misfortune, offers only bare hints of them. The result isn’t appalling; you go home thinking that these are pleasant enough people to be around, that Coleman and Fields wrote pretty good songs, and that Sweet Charity is by no means the worst old musical to have available in a year of largely miserable “new” musicals. But something’s distinctly lacking.

Don’t pin the lack solely on the person most visible onstage. Much ado has been made, pro and con, about Christina Applegate’s abilities. She’s not the worst performer ever to move from television into actual acting. She has looks, and pluck, and sweetness; she can sing a bit, and dance a bit better than that (even while favoring her newly mended foot). Probably, in a role better suited to her, her little dollop of charisma would go a longer way; probably, if she sticks with the stage despite all her Charity misadventures, her ability to project her presence will only increase. She doesn’t command the heartbreaking pathos for this role. And—an important point—she’s too pretty to play a girl who’s always getting dumped by men. Gwen Verdon’s off-angle looks and brash, throaty voice made this believable: You could see why some dumb guy might betray her, though you yourself of course knew better. Verdon only became a complete wonder when dance revealed her inner self. Since certain things have been made easier for Applegate after her foot injury, it’s hard to tell how far her dancing gifts extend, but it’s unlikely they come anywhere near the spectacular emotional bond that Verdon’s body, in motion, could forge with an audience.

To be fair, Applegate isn’t offered much of an opportunity to be spectacular, in dance or any other area. Because a show like Charity tests the production-makers’ imaginations in every department, you can plainly see the form’s decline in quality over the last two decades. Walter Bobbie’s production looks drab and hurried, its jokes and big moments punched heavily out front, to make sure the tourists catch on. Scott Pask’s sets, mostly dark, flat enclosures, heighten this by pushing the action downstage. Wayne Cilento’s choreography, relentlessly routine, makes the numbers seem to blur into one another. Denis O’Hare, as Charity’s hung-up boyfriend Oscar, gives the evening’s one strikingly original and commanding performance, but even he plays more broadly than he should. Janine LaManna and Kyra DaCosta are only adequate as Charity’s wisecracking co-workers; Paul Schoeffler is inadequate, in both looks and voice, as the Italian movie star who briefly picks her up.

Still, it’s a virtue to be charitable to Charity. Applegate has her own charm, if not the character’s. O’Hare, even coarsened, is a marvel. And even when kicked about this way, the Coleman-Fields score has its joys. Given the badness of most current Broadway musicals, Charity could almost be the greatest of these.

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ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES Theater

Jones’s Electricity and Uggams’s Warmth Wake Up a Snoozy Script

Supplanted by the TV sitcom, the ancient form of the Broadway comedy has almost entirely died out. Neil Simon, its last (and by no means best) ultra-successful practitioner, finds audiences and critics increasingly unenthused about his recent works. Broadway’s nonmusical ventures now come from other venues, bearing newer themes and less comforting tactics. But the old species survives, apparently, in the minds of producers whose only notion is to give some ancient “property” a new jolt of electricity, so it can make money for them as it did for their predecessors.

First staged in 1979, Ernest Thompson’s On Golden Pond is a late, nakedly inferior specimen of the genre. It deals with a retired college professor and his wife facing yet another summer at their cottage by a tranquil lake in Maine, and you can practically carbon-date it by its relentless emphasis on the main characters’ age and decrepitude: The Broadway comedies of the 1920s dealt with courting couples and young marrieds; as the decades wore on, the protagonists got progressively older. Nothing about On Golden Pond is particularly true or exciting; it’s the kind of script that tries to get laughs by having 70-year-olds use slang expressions like “suck face,” and its hero is a classic warmhearted grouch, always ready with a gag line, even while flat on the floor recuperating from a heart attack. But the electric charge is supplied here by making the couple, improbably, black: Nobody ever accused James Earl Jones of lacking electricity, or Leslie Uggams of lacking warmth. Their presence is so powerfully reassuring, in fact, that it creates something of a first: an electric blanket that keeps you awake all during this snooze of a script.