What L.A. Theatre Works is doing with audio plays is really –no hyperbole– a service to mankind. I am so glad that they are recording high-quality performances of works from some of history’s most important playwrights. And they’ve been able to get some big-name talent involved, as well.
Experiencing performances of some of the old plays during the last few years, I’ve come to realize that few things make me feel as riveted to my own time as comedy. It really changes from one generation to the next, doesn’t it? You wouldn’t think it would. It seems like, human nature being what it is, that we’d basically be laughing at the same jokes now that we did two thousand years ago. But I have found that I just flat-out do not LIKE many of the great old plays. Even most of 20th century comedy is completely wasted on me. You can keep your Danny Kaye, your Jerry Lewis, your Crosby & Hope. I’ll take Simon Pegg over those guys any day.
Most recently, I gave the plays of Neil Simon a go. I could not even finish some of them. I suppose my favorite was Barefoot In The Park, and I at least made it to the end of Biloxi Blues.
Neil Simon was an outstandingly popular playright in his day. And I’m not trying to disparage his talent. His plays include the aforesaid Barefoot In The Park and Biloxi Blues, and also The Odd Couple and Brighton Beach Memoirs among numerous others. And I’m sure he won plenty of awards. I’m also sure he’s beloved by many of you. So, er, no offense meant.
Here’s the thing: much of the humor of Simon is centered around head-ache-inducing arguments and lotsa of pissing and moaning, with the actors tending to deliver their lines in raised or even shrill voices– tones which hit my ears like assault-and-battery and caused me to lunge toward the eject button of my CD-player before a couple of the plays were even fairly well started. I’m thinking especially of The Prisoner Of Second Avenue, in which Richard Dreyfuss and his on-stage wife spend the first third of the play yelling and arguing. I don’t know what they do the last two-thirds of the play. I stopped listening. Personally, I found that play about as pleasant to listen to as nails down a chalkboard. Additionally, much of Simon’s humor– surprisingly to me– is downright crude. And all the jokes– perhaps crisp and snappy in their day– seem stale to this 21st boy.
I think Simon wrote during a time in which people (and here I’ll be generous and include critics in that term) admired authors who tackled the issues of sex, race, and domestic relationships. Plays and movies from the 20th century seem to have impressed people just for bringing these subjects up. And of course, many of these productions took the form of comedies because –when it comes to the really uncomfortable subjects in life– comedy is often the best way to explore them.
Even today audiences find humorous those situations which embarrass or shame us. Many of today’s popular, crude-humor movies work on the same principle. They no longer receive the critics’ approval, but some of them are wildly popular.
Lastly, I also discovered a similarity between Simon’s work and much of Woody Allen’s work (Blue Jasmine being one of the exceptions)… Neither Allen’s nor Simon’s work succeeds in carrying me away to that marvelous place where I can suspend disbelief and begin partially believing– with that childlike make-believe part of my mind– that I am experiencing real events and meeting sympathy-enducing people. Both Allen’s and Simon’s plays almost always feel to me like what they are– performances. I can never lose the feeling that the actors are just– well, acting. It’s as if I can see the writer winking at me while the performance is going on, and giving me a nudge as if to ask, “Did you catch that?”