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Partying with Neil Simon

The newlywed playwright sorts out divorce on stage in his latest play.

By New York City
America''s most successful living playwright has always done especially well writing about his own life. Now, at age 72, and after three divorces of his own, Simon is ready to tackle divorce on stage in his new, Broadway-bound show.

Neil Simon, America''s most successful living playwright, has always done especially well writing about his own life. His 1982 coming-of-age comedy "Brighton Beach Memoirs," about growing up in New York City, won the New York Drama Critics Circle award for best play. In 1985, "Biloxi Blues," based on Simon''s military experiences at boot camp, got a Broadway Tony award for best play before becoming a hit movie starring Matthew Broderick. All told, nearly a third of his 30 plays have been based directly on his own personal experiences.

Now, at age 72, after three divorces - including two (his second and third) from the same wife - Simon is ready to tackle divorce on stage in his next new Broadway-bound show.

In a wide-ranging interview, Simon says the play is called "The Dinner Party", which will have its world premiere at the Mark Tape Forum in Los Angeles on November 21, and which revolves around three couples in various stages of getting divorces. But he insists he''s not writing about intimate details of his own marriages and/or divorces in his latest and perhaps most intriguing play.

Simon also says that his four divorces have not soured him on marriage. And, in fact, Simon is making his fifth trip down the altar in October when he''s planning to marry actress Elaine Joyce in a small private ceremony in Santa Barbara.

In fact, he says, "I like the idea of sharing my life with someone, again," he says, sitting back in an overstuffed leather sofa in his spacious book-lined New York City apartment on Park Avenue.

Simon''s first divorce, in 1983, was from his second wife, actress Marsha Mason, who had appeared in his movie "Chapter II," dealing with his first wife''s death and subsequent marriage to Mason. Simon and Mason had been married 10 years.

His second divorce came in 1988, from Diane Lander-Simon, after the couple was married for little over one year. And, after the couple remarried in 1990, they divorced again in 1998.

"Yes, divorce was probably on my mind when I wrote ''The Dinner Party,''" Simon says. "But I want to give the subject a much more universal appeal. So this play, which is set in Paris, can be done anywhere."

Reportedly, Simon and Diane Lander, his third and fourth wife, whom he first met when she was handing out free perfume samples in a Neiman Marcus store in Beverly Hills, had signed a prenuptial agreement stipulating he wouldn''t put the details of their relationship on stage.

"I would never write about Diane," he says. "I wrote about Joan [his first wife, Joan Baim, a dancer, who died in 1973 of cancer] and I wrote about Marsha [Mason] in ''Chapter II.'' And I write about Diane and myself in my book - that is, the second installment of my memoirs which is being edited now."

"Rewrites: A Memoir," the first of his two-part biography, was published in 1996.

"In the second part of my memoirs I write about the good times with Diane," he says. "And you don''t want to go into the bad times. Because I have the pen in my hand and it''s not fair to the other person. And that''s something I wouldn''t ever want to share with the public. God knows I would never want to put it on stage!"

Talking specifically about "The Dinner Party," Simon says "I don''t know how to explain the play. It''s the kind of play I''ve never done before. It could take place in any country but I wanted it to take place in a place like Paris because these [the characters] are French people but the play''s translated in English."

"But it [the play] all has to do with divorce," he adds. "Three couples and their divorce problems. It starts off very funny and then slowly moves off to real problems of the couples'' divorces. It gets a little more intricate than that. I don''t want to talk about it too much yet. I''m still in the developmental stage even though I''ve done four drafts. I''ll do nine drafts before it actually is done."

Simon says the first full-fledged production of "The Dinner Party," which opens for previews at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles on November 21, may go to London before coming to Broadway.

But the inimitable Mr. Broadway says he can really live without Broadway. "I don''t have the mentality of Broadway or bust anymore," he says. "It''s kind of crazy to say you''re writing for one place. I don''t want to do that anymore. Touring for a year with a play is not a bad idea. But, these days, to do a tour with a straight play and not a musical you''d better have a big name in the cast. Also, there are very few places that have tours anymore for plays. Musicals they''ll take. But for plays the people that book them have one or two slots for plays to tour around the country. I have a few tours myself of older musicals I''ve written coming up. But they''re musicals I''ve done and they have names attached to them."

Simon also laments that Broadway, once the world''s hub of new dramas and comedies, has largely become the home of long-running mega-musicals and revivals of old musicals and plays.

"Today, some musicals run 10-12 years and comedies are a thing of the past on Broadway," he says. "All the good writers are in California and write for television or movies where they can make a living. They can work on a series on TV or write a movie and get paid well for it but with a play it can take three years to write a play and then it fails and you won''t make a dime. So writers aren''t writing for the theater the way they used to. They''re scared to."

"I was born at the right time," continues Simon, who started his career writing for "The Phil Silvers Show" in the 1950''s. "You could have a play that was just so-so. But if audiences liked it they came and you had a season and the producers got their money back."

Simon''s first Broadway play was "Come Blow Your Horn," which was produced in 1961 and subsequently made into a movie starring Frank Sinatra. But it was with his zany comedy "Barefoot in the Park," a few years later, and starring the young Robert Redford, that Simon began to have a string of hit Broadway shows -including "The Odd Couple," "Plaza Suite" and "The Prisoner of Second Avenue " - which was to extend practically to the middle of this current decade. But several of his most recent plays, like "Proposals" and "London Suite, were flops.

There were also several dozen highly-successful movies Simon wrote during this same 30-year period, including original screenplays like "The Out-of-Towners," starring Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis, and those adapted from plays like "The Old Couple."

In recent years, Simon''s plays sometimes have been greeted more enthusiastically in London than in New York. "London is still doing a lot of new plays" he says, "because it costs about half to do them there as it does here." His "The Prisoner of Second Avenue" recently ran in London with Marsha Mason. "She was wonderful in it. And we''ve become good friends again. Which is what people do when they really love each other," Simon says.

"We''ll see how it does in London and if it does well then it might come over here, too," he says. "I''ve cut quite a bit from it. It was about two hours and 45 minutes originally. But people don''t want to sit that long anymore.

And I think the basic subject works as well today as it did 25 years ago. It''s about a man who''s lost his job. That''s timeless."

One job Simon says he himself never wants is to be an actor. He got a very brief glimpse of what it must be like to be an actor when he was over in England cutting lines from "The Prisoner of Second Avenue."

"I was going backstage to visit Marsha when I stopped for a moment and stood on the stage itself, right in all the lights." he says. "And I thought to myself that after all the years I''ve done shows I''ve never known what it''s like to be an actor. What a job they have. All the intensity and the concentration they have to have. No, I don''t ever want to try it. It''s too tough!"


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