Filichia ruminates on the just-closed Rose's Dilemma and on the prolific career of Neil Simon.
Sixty performances! That total didn't even match Simon's last show, 45 Seconds from Broadway, which managed 73. And considering that his 2001 effort was ensconced at the enormous Richard Rodgers Theatre while Rose's Dilemma was at MTC's chummy mainstage space, this means that even fewer people saw the newest play by America's most successful and most prolific playwright -- far fewer, judging from the empty seats at the performance I attended.
The funny thing is that Rose's Dilemma wasn't a bad play. Not a great one, to be sure, but not a bad one. If a fledgling playwright had written it we'd call him "most promising." But that's not what you say about a guy who, at one time or another, has had his name on the marquee of 17 Broadway theaters and has it on one of them permanently (the one on West 52nd Street). In fact, Simon would have had his name on many more theaters had he not booked 10 shows into the O'Neill when he owned the joint.
Yes, he's been around the blocks of Broadway many times. In Rose's Dilemma, when the title character pressed 11 buttons on the telephone to make a call, I thought of the characters in Simon's 1960s plays who took forever to dial seven numbers on rotary phones. This playwright has seen a lot of changes!
Not counting Simon's musicals, revivals, and rewritten or recycled works, Rose's Dilemma was his 27th new play in New York. This makes a survey of his output easily divisible by thirds. The first nine plays, from Come Blow Your Horn in 1961 to The Sunshine Boys in 1972, ran a total of 6,766 performances -- an average of 752 each. The second nine, from The Good Doctor in 1973 to Broadway Bound in 1986, notched 4,569 performances; that's a 508 average and it represents a 32% decline. As for Simon's most recent nine, from Rumors in 1988 to Rose's Dilemma, they've run 2,623 performances for a 291.4 average and a further 43% slip.
Some of this, to be sure, is due to the fact that plays both on and Off-Broadway aren't running nearly as long as they once did. That's especially true of comedies, for what Simon routinely put on stage is now more commonly seen on the small screen. Here's an interesting stat: While Hollywood filmed each and every one of Simon's first nine plays, it covered only five of the next nine. And of the most recent nine, only one was filmed: Lost in Yonkers, his last hit. For that matter, three of his last 10 plays -- Broadway Bound, London Suite, and Laughter on the 23rd Floor -- had to settle for TV movies.
Many people think that Simon has always taken the easy way out and "Simonized" each script with gags, but his numbers wouldn't have declined as dramatically if he had played it safe and hadn't felt the need to experiment. Take it from someone who has seen the original cast perform each of Simon's works for the last 40 seasons: Broadway was surprised to see the one-acter that opened Plaza Suite in 1968, because Simon was clearly going for pathos as well as jokes. Two plays later, in 1970, came the even more serious-minded The Gingerbread Lady; and two plays after that, in 1973, there was The Good Doctor, an adaptation of Chekhov's short stories. None of us would have predicted after Simon's first three consecutive laff riots that he'd one day opt to adapt a work by Chekov, of all people. Aside from A Night in the Ukraine, which supposedly was "loosely based on Chekhov's The Bear" but barely was, Neil Simon was responsible for Chekhov's longest Broadway run in the entire 20th century.
Simon's averages also declined because his audience aged along with him -- in sickness and in bad heath -- and wasn't able to attend the theater as often as they once did. (That's especially true of those who died.) Yes, to be fair and frank, some of the decline has happened because Simon isn't what he was. But how could he be? How could we expect him to be? Playwrights, doctors, lawyers, and Native American chiefs throughout history have risen and fallen as they matured and aged. That's life. Now that he's closing in on his 77th birthday, it's simply Simon's turn to experience this. The titanic laughs and spontaneous applause that used to greet his scene-ending blackouts weren't heard after the first scene of Rose's Dilemma -- or after the second, third, or fourth. Only when the lights came up at the end of each act did the audience dutifully applaud.
There's no question that Simon is painfully aware that he's aging. Rose's Dilemma was chockablock with such lines as "Things are not the same," "Everything changes now," "The light is fading," "The signal is getting weaker," "Neither of us can stop the clock from ticking," "I'm a faded ex-writer," and "Especially at my age" -- which was said by Rose, a writer who has not lately been writing.
But that inertia is certainly not true of Rose's creator. Rose's Dilemma has plenty of forward-looking lines, too: e.g., "Every second of life is important," "That light never turns off," "Take what is offered to you for it may not come your way again." And, most tellingly, "I'm always thinking of my next one." He probably is -- and if he wants to continue, that's admirable. Lord knows, he doesn't need the money and he probably doesn't even need the plaudits. I think he just wants to work, and that's terrific. "Most writers die with an unfinished novel," Rose said; I suspect that Simon will die with an unfinished play.
When Rose's Dilemma opened to unenthusiastic notices, I thought of William Goldman's The Season; the book tells of the 1967-68 semester when Simon opened Plaza Suite, which would run 1,097 performances. That same season, the once-esteemed Tennessee Williams opened a play, too: The Seven Descents of Myrtle, which lasted 29 perfs. In the chapter on Simon -- entitled "Sunny Boy" -- Goldman used such words and phrases as "blockbuster," "popular," "funniest," "the best notices," "most skillful," and "beyond words successful." In the section on Williams, he used such words as "long," "terrible," "painful," "the badness of the evening," and "the odds are against his doing it again." These are the sort of words that Simon has had applied to him 36 years later.
On October 21 last year, Elysa Gardner's front-page story in USA Today -- I don't mean just the front page of the Life section but the front page of the whole paper -- was headlined "Tennessee Williams is hotter than ever." Gardner told of the playwright's then-upcoming Broadway revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and the many productions of his works by the nation's best regional theaters -- works by "a man who has been dead for more than 20 years." The passing of time has helped Williams to be treated better than he was at the end of his Broadway career. Indeed, the Drama Dept. -- a much-acclaimed Off-Broadway theater company -- chose a late Williams work, Kingdom of Earth, as one of its first offerings and it helped jump-start the troupe to success. (May I add that Kingdom of Earth was once titled The Seven Descents of Myrtle?)
As Rose said, "Gloom is very popular these days." But I won't be surprised if, in 20 years, Rose's Dilemma gets a better reception than the one it just got. Lord knows, this Manhattan Theatre Club production was troubled; but 20 years from now, without the snarky notes and the wives and the author's reputation on the line, it just might play. I hope it does.