A Letter from Neil Simon
Reflections on Brendan Hunt’s The Art Couple
By Steven Leigh Morris
In August, 1997, I received a letter from Neil Simon. It was in response to a largely negative review of Simon’s play, Proposals, that I’d written in the LA Weekly. The play had been performed at The Ahmahnson Theatre and was headed to New York. When I saw the small blue envelope in my company mail slot, with “Neil Simon” embossed on the cover, and my name typed on the other side, both a thrill and a chill ran through me.
With hands trembling, I carefully tore open the envelope to unveil and unfold a three-page, hand-typed rebuttal to my review. I mention hand-typed, because computers and computer-printers were already in wide use at that time. The very format was an indication of long-held habits, and of care.
For slightly over 20 years, I’ve held onto that letter. For a reason I can’t fathom myself, I never framed it. Rather, I’ve kept it in a Ziploc bag to help preserve it. I’ve never written about it before, nor have I mentioned it in public, with the possible exception of showing it to my editors at the time, and at the LA Weekly Awards meeting following its arrival, attended entirely by my colleagues.
Here, I’m breaking that silence, first because it’s now been over 20 years, but mainly because it speaks almost directly to a production that opened on Friday at Sacred Fools Theater Company, Brendan Hunt’s The Art Couple. Simon’s letter is, in fact, a letter of support for Hunt’s compassionate portrayal of Simon in the play, tenderly rendered by Clayton Farris, who wanders through Hunt’s surreal landscape with an expression of bemused perplexity.
I’ve never socialized with Neil Simon. I’ve heard gossip about his character, but for me, whoever he is resides in his plays — which is essentially Hunt’s point. Simon’s character similarly resides in his own letter, which ruminates on his upbringing and temperament, and also illustrates them. The letter is vaguely annoyed, world-weary, world-wise, and fundamentally generous.
From the body of his plays, I “diagnosed” the motives of Neil Simon in the pages of LA Weekly, as I suppose all critics do to authors, and vice versa – as evidenced in Simon’s letter. My larger complaint with Neil Simon was that he is always circling around painful truths with rim-shot jokes and Borscht Belt rhythms, which of course stem from his upbringing and which also deflect from whatever pain he is trying to confront. Years later, I find that assessment facile.
Simon was and, to some extent, remains part of a culture which jokes its way around despair, as both a style and a means of coping with it – as though horrors don’t need to be unearthed, because anybody who knows anything about anything understands the existence of horror. Why dwell on it? You can just point to pain with a well-timed quip, and everybody gets it. Any more than that would be both crass and morbid.
In Hunt’s fiction, Simon runs into an aspiring playwright and busboy name Steve (Sam) Shepard (Ryan Patrick Welsh), in a 1964 East Village bar. Shepard has much the same complaint with Neil Simon as I once did, about evading versus confronting the pain in one’s heart. The Art Couple’s conceit is that the two writers latch on to each other, and with Simon’s very reluctant and temporary consent, agree to collaborate on a new play, The Odd Couple, that Simon is wrestling with. The Odd Couple has been commissioned and Simon has already received a hefty advance (to the fury of Shepard – how dare they?) – the problem being that Simon has a play title and nothing else: not an actual word on the page. In Simon’s imagination, however, he knows his play will consist of two divorced men living together — one a neurotic, fastidious housekeeper and the other a slob. “Very simple,” Simon insists in Hunt’s play, a simplicity that will be the key to its commercial success. (The Odd Couple became a hit on Broadway from 1965 to 1967 starring Art Carney and Walter Matthau; it was released as a film in 1968 starring Matthau and Jack Lemmon, and become a TV series in the 1970s, starring Tony Randall and Jack Klugman.)
Shepard mocks Simon: Alright, two “non-gay” men living together. Right.
Commercial success is of less interest to the monk-like Shepard, who insists that Broadway is dying, and that the key to artistic success lies in the purity of art and of unmasking long-veiled truths, rather than joking around them and placating popular tastes. Shepard suggests that if Simon would take his calling more seriously, he has the talent to land a Pulitzer Prize, which is clearly Shepard’s intention for himself. Simon’s eyes roll at this. What planet does this cowboy-hipster think he’s living on? (Shepard won 10 Obie-awards and received the Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for his play, Buried Child.)
Here is the tortured, starving genius versus the rich comedian who instinctively sniffs out how to make a buck in the theater, and in the movies and on TV.
This duality shows up in numerous other odd couples in the play, but it also shows up in Simon’s letter: He writes about it via Chekhov’s The Seagull, and the tortured playwright Treplev versus the rich, successful author Trigorin, whom the purist Treplev accuses of mediocrity and of selling out. (In that play, when Treplev finally gains fame, he recognizes how his own mediocre tropes have garnered him success.)
On a side note, Simon also mentions Sam Shepard in the letter, and refers to writing “from conviction,” as well as “selling out.” In Hunt’s fantasia, the accusation of “selling out” is Shepard’s poison dart against Simon. But in his letter to me, Simon mentions that he writes from conviction, his conviction, which is the opposite of selling out. I believe him now, as I believed him then. Perhaps the cliche of the tortured artist starving in a garret and spurned by society for creating art from personal conviction, versus the wealthy, successful star who sells out by placating popular taste is a false dichotomy, a folly. That falsehood is what Hunt ultimately settles on exposing. If a playwright such as Neil Simon or Lin-Manuel Miranda can write from conviction and still be the most commercially successful playwrights in America, in their respective eras, success and “selling out” may not necessarily be as interlocked as Hunt’s Sam Shepard claims, or, for that matter, as Chekhov’s Treplev.
In Hunt’s invention, Shepard imagines The Odd Couple being set in 1880s Arles, France, a village outside Paris where the fastidious Paul Gauguin (Bryan Bellomo) reluctantly consents to join the brash, lunatic absinthe-addicted Vincent van Gogh (Hunt) in an art colony, where they can concentrate on their art, without the diversions of the city, or of the commerce it traffics in. Besides, Gauguin has nothing better to do at the time. Had his paintings been selling, he’d never have left Paris.
And so, Hunt asks on multiple planes and time zones, what drives people to create art? Is art, at core, a theological or a commercial calling? And this is precisely the question roiling our own theater community, where hundreds of artists argue for the former, in the face of the national stage actors’ union, which argues for the latter.
For this reason, the play is potently relevant to a cultural conundrum – or is it? Honestly now, do we live in a culture where any value except financial profit can be given serious consideration?
Having set up his core duality, Hunt methodically dismantles it. By play’s end, the prolific van Gogh, who hasn’t a care in the world what anyone thinks of his paintings, or who will buy them, fully understands that he will be the brightest commercial star of his peers. He paints because he has to paint. End of story. He doesn’t frequent the galleries of Paris, or flatter patrons. He just paints. He is both starving artist and commercial superstar of the future.
Hunt doesn’t so much as commit to an argument as goof with the paradox he sets up. His point, like the pointillism of painter George Seurat (Joel Scher) lies more in schematics than in any particular conviction. Hunt leaves conviction to his artists, and he lets them ramble and amble through their multitudinous planes, and internal contradictions and hypocrisies.
Hunt may be acting out the role of Vincent van Gogh on the stage, and with a striking man-child charisma, but it’s Neil Simon who lives as the soul of Hunt’s play. The Art Couple is propelled largely by the same style of rim-shot jokes, the same exasperated expressions on the faces of his characters, and from similar absurdities as you’ll find in Simon’s The Odd Couple and Lost in Yonkers.
True, van Gogh’s severed ear gets flung around the stage while characters scream hysterically, and you might ask, is this Sam Shepard’s influence, or Neil Simon’s? Is this moment the unearthing of hidden pain? I don’t think so. In Simon’s Proposals, a string of characters lines up facing the audience at the funeral of somebody’s pet bird, which, with the timing of the pauses and the eulogies, is one of the funniest scenes in the play. It is theme and variation on Hunt’s severed ear-scene, though obviously the ear is more grotesque. But it is farce nonetheless, which is part of Neil Simon’s arsenal.
Shepard trafficked more in Theatre of the Absurd – that blend of absurdity and dream, which is fundamentally different from farce. I would argue that in so many ways, The Art Couple derives from Neil Simon, more than from Sam Shepard or Vincent van Gogh, despite the efforts of director Lauren Van Kurin to transform it into a dream.
Her loving production in the theater’s Black Box space has the audience bifurcated and staring at each other on two seating banks. Her sitcom acting style surges with classical music and projected Impressionist-era paintings (Corwin Evans), combining tones of nimble playfulness with moving grandiloquence — thanks also to her terrific ensemble.
But back to Neil Simon: All you need to know, reading his rebuttal, are two statements that obviously aroused him: I wrote that Simon was actually aspiring to be Anton Chekhov, and that Proposals revealed how Simon was “kind, clever and wise.”
So here’s Neil Simon’s letter, in its entirety. As you’ll see, it ricochets off the core ideas in The Art Couple, and, similarly, now speaks to us from the vantage of an earlier century. What strikes me in retrospect is a kind of poignancy — that the most commercially successful playwright in the United States through a span of decades, a man who has a Broadway theater named after him, fully comprehends that his devices of humor and rhythm, stemming as he says directly from the truth of his convictions, no longer have the grip they once did. And for a writer true to his own convictions, there’s not a whole lot to be done about that, other than yield — okay, now it’s somebody else’s turn. And that’s the bitch of having a long career as an artist in a world that keeps changing faster and faster, whether you’re starving in a garret, or a superstar.
August 12 
Dear Steven Leigh Morris,
Surely I have a great many things more important to do than to write to a critic who has just given me pretty much a negative review but that’s not the reason for this letter. I actually like your writing. Very often over a sandwich for lunch in Westwood, I’ll pickup the LA Weekly, or even some other publication not unlike your paper and say to myself, “You know something? Some of these young guys are better reviewers and better writers than you find in the more established and popular newspapers, including the LA Times and a few others.” (Am I only assuming you’re young? Anyone under forty to me is young.) The only difference, I suppose is that reviewers writing for a publication with a larger circulation probably have an obligation to tell their readers that you may be wasting your 20 or 50 dollars going to see this thing, while I don’t think you have any obligation other than to your own sensibilities, which is what permits you to be more erudite, more honest and possibly more interesting. I found your review interesting, although I disagree with a few points here and there, but nothing really to upset my sensibilities.
In the first place, it doesn’t plague me that I never will be Chekhov. I think it’s in “The Seagull”, (I could be wrong about this) but in it, the writer Trigorin says to the young girl who holds him in the greatest esteem as a writer and thinks how wonderful it must be to be him, (and I paraphrase because I do not have the play there in front of me), “ah, but people will walk by my grave one day and say, ‘Yes, Yes, a very good writer, but not as good as Tolstoy. Not as good as Turgeniev.’” Chekhov, of course, was talking about himself and if he was having that problem, why should I stay up nights worrying that I am not as good as Chekhov? Who is, for that matter? David Mamet? Sam Shepard? Both good writers. But none of us are Chekhov. Not even Chekhov thought he was as good as Chekhov, so I’ve put that one to rest.
I also didn’t think for a moment that I was stealing some of the footprints laid down in “Uncle Vanya”. I know the play very well and when you compare me to it, even unfavorably, you compliment me. The only reason anyone even mentions that “Proposals” pretends to be Chekhov is that my play is set outdoors. I could possibly see your point if I had a samovar on the table but that was not what I was after. Mostly I had to write a play that got out of the God damn house. And especially in Brooklyn, where I did not grow up, but that’s another story. That I write funny (which is not necessarily vaudevillian humor) I will plead guilty. At least you give me my due. “Nobody can match him.” I appreciate that. You’re obviously bright enough to know that writing a play is hard and writing a play that is truly funny is a kind of miracle. If everyone could do it, Broadway would be glutted with them. But where are they? They’ve gone, the good ones and the bad ones, only to be shoved out of their theaters with musicals and more musicals. I also agree that I am kind, clever and wise but I really do think I have written two transcendent plays, “The Odd Couple” because it will be around long after you and I are dead, no matter how young you are, and also “Lost in Yonkers”. That’s of course, my opinion.
If Chekhov were alive today and writing the same plays anew that he left as his legacy, they not only would not run long on Broadway, they would be hard pressed to push “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” out of a theater. I agree with you. I would prefer Chekhov. But that’s not the world we live in today.
Ms. Weiner, in the LA Times, led off her review with, “As expected, ‘Proposals’ is wise and witty, but far too mellow,” or something like that. I rarely remember the exact quotes of reviews because there are so damn many of them. So I am found guilty because, once again, I wrote, as expected, wise and witty. So I not only have to top writing Chekhov, I have to top writing as expected.
I have no complaints. I agree with some of your complaints, which is why I keep working on the play as you’re reading this, and will continue to until it reaches New York in the fall. But you won’t like it there either because it will still be funny and I still won’t be Chekhov. One day you might write about some playwright, that he might be suffering play after play, that he is not Neil Simon. I wouldn’t know. I’ll be gone by then.”
But still I liked your review and I am glad there is someone in this town who has a brain and the guts to use it. I should be grateful. I fared better in your hands than “Rent” did and to tell the truth, I’m not sure if that show is the Emperor’s Clothes or not. I saw it, I liked it but I don’t know why. Also I don’t think about it a lot. But I always think about “Streetcar” or “Long Day’s Journey” because I didn’t have the good fortune to have a mother who was a heroin addict. We write what we know about. I come from a slightly sunnier family.
Maybe I’m writing this letter because I also think you have some compassion in you and I don’t think you write reviews to make a name for yourself or because you like putting the knife in and twisting it. I think you write following your own convictions and I admire that. I do too, but because I’m so much in the public eye, I’m a much larger target than you. And an easier mark.
And also, because I don’t think there will be many more plays coming from this typewriter. After you’ve written 30 of them, there’s not much point in continuing. I thought Willie Mays was one of the greatest players I’ve ever seen, but I wouldn’t want to see him in the outfield today. There are younger kids who run faster and hit further.
I will continue to read your reviews and the reviews of your fellow critics on the Weekly. The theater can use good critics as much as they need good playwrights.
If you’ve enjoyed getting this letter from me, enjoy it. You’re not selling out. If not, toss it away and forget about it.
The Art Couple is being performed by Sacred Fools Theater Company at the Broadwater Black Box, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. (no perf March 4); through March 17. www.sacredfools.org
Side note: Since the steady implosion of the LA Weekly in general, and its theater section in particular (from 12-14 review per week to one or two), many of the writers whom Neil Simon praises in his letter now write (at the same rate of pay) for Stage Raw.
Full disclosure: My play Red Ink was a finalist for production by Sacred Fools Theater Company last year. During a May, 2017 meeting at the theater, to discuss my play’s technical requirements and the timing of its potential production, the director I’d been working with for several years suffered a massive stroke, and remains incapacitated. The status of my play with Sacred Fools remains in limbo.