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A CurtainUp Book Review

The Play Goes On
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer

Upon finishing the memoir that ended with the tragic death of playwright Neil Simon's beloved wife we said "You like and respect Simon. You love and weep for Joan." His closing with a line from a Gwen Verdon song "Where am I going and what will I find?" struck us as a signal that Simon would soldier on and that Rewrites would be followed by a sequel.

And here it is, appropriately wearing a book jacket that looks a Playbill and beginning just a day after he left us. Written in the same casual style of juxtaposing reminiscences about his work with just enough personal details to show how his art persistently imitates his life, the two books together are like act one and two of an autobiographical play.

As in Rewrites, Simon is at his best when he recounts anecdotes connected with the process of bringing his plays to stage or screen, a process in which he has always been an active participant. This includes decisions about firing actors who proved to be wrong for the parts for which they were hired. Harvey Keitel got his walking papers from The Odd Couple. When Tony Curtis came aboard during the Los Angeles tryouts of one of Simon's lesser known works, I Ought to be In Pictures, all went well until the first previews and time for the inevitable rewrites. "What do you mean, rewrites?" he exclaimed. "I thought this was the play. I thought what I learned was the play we were going to do!" To no one's surprise, Curtis never made it to Broadway -- but it was something of a surprise when he walked out after act one of a matinee performance. A rather different problem came up with the perfectly cast George Burns. Seems Burns' ever present hair piece looked out of place in one scene. When asked to remove it Burns, cooperation personified, took it off and tossed it into a saucer on the table, with this warning to all present: "Nobody drink from that saucer."

In case you didn't know that Simon was an uncredited contributor to Michael Bennett's A Chorus Line, chapter 11 now tells all about the circumstances. Aside from the satisfaction of doing his bit, Simon's only payoff for adding a few comic touches were a couple of pillow cases -- a rather strange gift which the recipient could only figure out as a way for Bennett to say "Thank you for keeping this under your pillow."

One of the most amusing personal remembrances is about his trip to London with his thirteen-year-old grandson Andrew, who obviously inherited a good deal of grandpa's sense of humor. On the last evening of their holiday, they went to see David Mamet's Cryptogram and Andrew, who had never heard actors read Mamet's dialogue before was clearly taken with the style. As soon as the curtain went down, Andrew turned into a character in a Mamet play, but as written by Andrew. When Simon realized what his grandson was doing, he got into the spirit of things and the ensuing Mametian interchange is a howl. The warmth of this grandfather-grandson getting to know you trip should make every grandparent try to make time for a similar holiday.

Simon's various house hunts -- especially, in Los Angeles -- are fodder from some wry Simonesque observations but by the time we've seen him buy a house in Bel Air, Sante Fe and move back to New York's East Side, one gets a sense of padding with this excess of real estate details. As is often common with plays generally and sequels in particular, the promise of act one often loses its fizz in act two. This is also true of this second act memoir. It's nice to know that the play continues to go on for the prolific and too often underrated playwright -- but let's hope he spends his golden years playwriting instead of memoir writing.

a memoir by Neil Simon
Published October 1999 by Simon & Schuster
hard cover, 318 pages, illustrated with photos
To buy on line,
The Play Goes On-- paperback

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