Mr. Neu was a survivor of another era in New York theatre, when careers and reputations could be forged without the artist every venturing above 14th Street. Most of his plays, which emerged every two years or so, played at the bastion of Off-Off-Broadway experimentalism, La MaMa ETC. Mr. Neu would often perform in his own works, gathering around him a nucleus of trusted players including Mary Schultz and the late Bill Rice.
His subject was life as we supposedly live it — a world of artifice and carefully crafted lies where marketing, jargon, received knowledge and cliche have slowly eroded any sense of genuinely lived experience. His mission, always executed with deadpan humor and a light touch, was to remind us how secondhand our actions and thoughts have become, supplanted long ago by media-informed behavior just shy of stage-acting.
In Gang of Seven, his most recent play, and one of his best received, a focus group is infected with delusions of power and bolts from its handlers. In Target Audience, Mr. Neu played Dr. James Thorne, a professor of the very Neu-like science of "Situology," which deals with the place where the factual and the fictional meet and blur. The Floatones centered around a self-help singing group. And in the The Situation Room, Mr. Neu was an operative in a shady firm that was hired to study real life. Attending a party and inviting a woman to dance, his character would remark, "This is what this is like."
"Neu's talent is that he faces these heady issues with a light touch, a raised eyebrow, and a Puckish wit," this reporter wrote in a review of Gang of Seven in The Village Voice. "Few playwrights can carry off such breezy intellectualism. A nearly nonstop feast of logic-bending 'façadism,' psychobabblish bon mots, and hilariously dry-eyed tangents about smear campaigns and sports-arena bloodlust, it brings existential confusion into tight focus." With his craggily handsome face, hangdog manner and rumbling John Wayne baritone, Mr. Neu added an extra layer of bemused deadpan to his material.
James Neu was born in Brooklyn on Nov. 18, 1943, and, after age 7, grew up in Huntington, Long Island. His father was a truck driver and later owned a grocery; his mother worked in a school cafeteria, according to The New York Times. He was drafted after graduating college. Upon his release in late 1967, he moved to New York City's East Village. In 1970, he joined a workshop run by the then-emerging director Robert Wilson. He performed with Wilson's Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds from 1970 through 1975, traveling throughout Europe, to Brazil, British Columbia and Iran. With fellow Wilson veteran SK Dunn, he began creating his own work for the Napa Valley Theater Company in 1976. Starting in the late '70s, he worked at such seminal Downtown New York performance spaces as the Kitchen, Westbeth Theater Center, Soho Rep and P.S. 122. His many plays include Kiss Shot, Undercurrent Incorporated, Mondo Beyondo, Live Witness, La Vie Noir and Alone Together. As an actor, he performed in many works by Charles Allcroft.
He is survived by his wife Carol Mullins.