Neil Simon, at age 70-yes, 70!-is still evolving as a playwright.
Proposals, which opened last month at the Broadhurst Theatre, is Simon's 30th Broadway production and, in many ways, it is unlike any of the 29 that have gone before it. The Simon wit and humor are very much in evidence, but the outdoor set designed by John Lee Beatty immediately establishes a mellow and magical atmosphere foreign to the playwright's familiar urban landscapes.
The play takes place near a resort in the Pocono Mountains, not-too-many miles but a world away from the New York abodes that are the backdrop for most of Simon's works. With the exception of the role of the father, portrayed by Dick Latessa, none of the characters is inherently or emotionally Jewish. A lead character is a black woman, played by the remarkable L. Scott Caldwell, marking the first time in his career that Simon has written a substantial role for an African-American actor. That, in turn, compelled him to modify his familiar cadences and inflections, and develop a rhythm of speech which would be truer to this particular woman.
"Her humor is different," says Simon. "Her take on life is different."
Proposals is a romantic comedy-drama, a memory play guided by the late Clemma Diggins (Caldwell), who was the devoted housekeeper for Burt Hines (Latessa) and his daughter Josie (Suzanne Cryer). She is looking back on the events of a summer in the 1950's, when nine people converged on this tranquil country home and not so tranquilly sorted out their tangled lives and loves.
The autumnal quality of the play has struck some critics as Chekhovian, but Proposals seems to have more in common with A Midsummer Night's Dream. "I would never say I started out thinking about A Midsummer Night's Dream," says Simon. "It started with the idea of my first wife, Joan, and the black nanny that she'd had. And as I went step by step, and brought in all these people, it began to take form for me. And I thought, 'What is this like? I've never seen anything like it, except maybe Midsummer.' I don't mean it to be a fantasy‹it's not that at all. I didn't follow the plan of A Midsummer Night's Dream, just the essence of it. And there is something unique in terms of my own writing. I'm dealing with all love stories, with a whole spectrum of relationships." Perhaps the most beautifully realized character is Clemma, a gutsy creation in these politically correct times. "I wouldn't have written for her if I didn't think I could do it," says Simon. "I thought I knew her. And I knew that I would be able to count on the person playing her to straighten me out if something wasn't right. Not that there was much of that. Scottie used to say, 'This woman is no Hattie McDaniel in Gone with the Wind.' She's a woman who had a sense of her own freedom. She was very free in the way she talked to that family."
Caldwell, a Tony Award winner for August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone, did not even want to read the play when she learned the part she was up for was that of a domestic. She relented at the urging of her agent. "She said, 'I'll read it, but I'm not going to do it,' " says Simon. "She told me later that she said yes on the first page, because the woman that I described was her mother. Her mother was a cook and a nanny for a Jewish lawyer for many years, and they had a wonderful employer-employee relationship. It was also fortuitous that I described Clemma as wearing a yellow ribbon in her hair; Scottie said, 'That's what my mother wore.' After she read for the part, she said, 'You could have gone wrong, but you didn't.' "
Because five of the nine characters in Proposals are in their twenties, Simon thought it was important that the director be someone not from his own generation, someone who could infuse a youthful perspective to the play. His wife suggested Joe Mantello, who so impressed both of them with his work on Terrence McNally's Love! Valour! Compassion! Immediately, Simon agreed.
"I needed someone who was young, someone who would understand the play, and who would have the ability to stage it in a contemporary way," he says. "Many of the directors I've worked with in the past are older, and as good as they were, I wanted a whole new viewpoint on this play, somebody who was going to add something to my own way of thinking."
Simon's plays have been a perennial part of the Broadway landscape ever since the premiere of Come Blow Your Horn in 1961. He began his career at a time when Broadway was as welcoming to the new play as it was to the new musical. But much has changed during the ensuing 37 years, and Simon believes that if he were starting out today, things would be very different for him.
"I'd have no career," he says. "I've thought about this a lot. I would say that in the world we're living in today, about 15 of my 30 plays wouldn't get produced on Broadway because they were small plays. They would be done Off-Broadway, but we're talking about Broadway. That's the goal for everyone who comes to New York with a theatrical piece. They want to go to Broadway with it. I had Michael Gambon set to do London Suite, but when he found we were doing it Off-Broadway, he said, 'No, thank you.' "
America's most popular and prolific playwright turned 70 on July 4, and he admits that his passion for the process of getting a show up is not quite as intense as it was. "I don't know how many more plays I'll be able to do," he says. "I would say not a lot. It's not because I don't have a desire to write. But they take too long. I now spend two or three years working on a play, which wasn't true before. There are more problems today. It took us a year to cast Proposals; we'd find people, and they'd say, 'I just got a role in a movie.' So you're bucking that. Times are changing. But I have no complaints. I've had a full career. And I'm not so sure that I can stop writing plays."
During the period that Simon was working on Proposals, he also wrote a sequel to perhaps his most famous work, The Odd Couple. The Odd Couple II reunites Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau as Felix and Oscar. "They're on the road, lost in California, trying to get to the wedding of their children," says Simon. "They might as well be in the Gobi Desert. They are so quintessentially New York. I loved doing it. It was like going back to visit my best friends. They're the same today as they were then. They're the kinds of people, as there are in the world, that never change."
Unlike their creator.