A Look at Neil Simon's Notable Works
Posted August 26, 2018 4:53 p.m. EDT
A look at the work of Neil Simon over the decades reveals a prolific chronicler of New York City life who examined angst, romance and ambition through a comic lens, whether for the stage, film or television. Critics, like audiences in general, were mixed in their response to Simon’s comedy, which tended toward shticky one-liners and heart-squeezing monologues. Here is a look at his most notable works.
‘Barefoot in the Park’ (1963)
Elizabeth Ashley and Robert Redford starred on Broadway in this “bubbling, rib-tickling” comedy, as Howard Taubman of The New York Times wrote in his review, about the strains of marriage on a young couple living in New York City. The show, Simon’s first big Broadway hit, was nominated for four Tony Awards, including best play, with Mike Nichols winning for best director.
“Mr. Simon evidently has no aspirations except to be diverting, and he achieves those with the dash of a highly skilled professional writer,” Taubman wrote.
The play inspired a 1967 film adaptation starring Redford and Jane Fonda (a “carelessly knocked-together film” with “plenty of gross exaggeration of the embarrassments of callow newlyweds,” Bosley Crowther wrote); a 1970 ABC series with a black cast; and a 2006 Broadway revival with Patrick Wilson and Amanda Peet (and costumes by Isaac Mizrahi).
The 1967 film is streaming on Netflix and Starz, and is available for rental or purchase via Amazon Prime Video, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play and YouTube.
‘The Odd Couple’ (1965)
This comedy about mismatched roommates Felix (the clean one, played by Art Carney) and Oscar (the messy one, played by Walter Matthau) was another Broadway smash for Simon. The play ran for 964 performances and received four Tony Awards, including for Simon (in the “best author” category) and Nichols for direction.
In his review, Taubman wrote of Simon: “His skill — and it is not only great but constantly growing — lies in his gift for the deliciously surprising line and attitude. His instinct for incongruity is faultless. It nearly always operates on a basis of character.”
The play was turned into a 1968 film starring Matthau, in a reprise of his stage role, with Jack Lemmon as Felix. In The Times, Renata Adler called it a “very funny, professional adaptation.” Matthau and Lemmon reunited for the 1998 sequel “The Odd Couple II,” written by Simon.
A popular 1970s TV sitcom featured Tony Randall as Felix and Jack Klugman as Oscar. Matthew Perry and Thomas Lennon starred in a CBS remake that ran for two seasons from 2015 to 2017. “It’s an interesting experiment,” Alessandra Stanley wrote in her review. A female version of the play, starring Rita Moreno and Sally Struthers, opened to mostly negative reviews on Broadway in 1985. “The comedy plants itself four square on the stage of the Broadhurst and defies its author, director and players to make it make sense,” Walter Kerr wrote in The Times.
Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick played Oscar and Felix in a 2005 Broadway revival that received mixed reviews. Ben Brantley said the play gave the impression “of one of those latter-day sitcoms in which the characters dream they’ve been beamed into an earlier, vintage television series. Which means that the talented stars of this ‘Odd Couple’ are indeed odd men out.”
The 1968 film is available for rental or purchase via Amazon Prime Video, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, and YouTube. The original 1970 series is streaming on Hulu, while the 2015 show is available on CBS All Access.
‘Sweet Charity’ (1966)
Simon wrote the book for this jazzy musical about a dance hall girl named Charity, played by Gwen Verdon. An adaptation of Federico Fellini’s film “Nights of Cabiria,” the show featured music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Dorothy Fields and choreography by Bob Fosse, who won a Tony for his work. Stanley Kauffmann gave the show a mixed review, praising the choreography but not the score or Simon’s book. “Possibly Mr. Simon is hampered by working on someone else’s ideas,” he wrote.
A screen adaptation, directed and choreographed by Fosse, starred Shirley MacLaine in the title role. Vincent Canby wasn’t won over, writing that the film “has been so enlarged and so inflated that it has become another maximal movie: a long, noisy and, finally, dim imitation of its source material.” There have been two Broadway revivals. Debbie Allen received a Tony nomination for her performance in the 1986 production, which won in the category of best reproduction. Frank Rich praised Allen and the choreography but said Simon’s script “could still use major surgery.”
A 2005 revival may be best known for the on-again, off-again lead-up to opening night after the star, Christina Applegate, broke a bone in her foot but vowed to go on. Ben Brantley called it a “lukewarm” revival in which the “main course never seems to arrive.”
Tony-winning actress Sutton Foster starred in an off-Broadway revival in 2016. Ben Brantley called hers an “archetype-shattering performance.”
‘Plaza Suite’ (1968)
Simon’s next Broadway hit was this omnibus comedy, which tells three separate stories, all set in Suite 719 of the Plaza Hotel, with the leading roles played by the same pair of actors. George C. Scott and Maureen Stapleton starred in the original production, which ran a staggering 1,097 performances and was nominated for Tonys for best play, best actress in a play (Stapleton) and best direction of a play (Mike Nichols). Clive Barnes dubbed it a “laugh machine,” which “after a slow start with the first, warms up with the second and ends with an all-stops-out, grandstand finish with the third.” Simon adapted the play into a film version, released a year after the conclusion of its Broadway run, with Arthur Hiller directing. Walter Matthau was cast in the three male leads; his female partners were this time played by three actresses (Stapleton, Barbara Harris and Lee Grant). In 1982, HBO broadcast a taped production, shot in front of a live audience, featuring Grant and Jerry Orbach in the three roles; five years later, CBS aired a new production with Carol Burnett in the three female roles, opposite Hal Holbrook, Dabney Coleman and Richard Crenna. John J. O’Connor called it “a consistently amiable exercise.”
The 1971 film is available for rental or purchase at Amazon Prime Video, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, and YouTube.
‘The Out of Towners’ (1970)
“Plaza Suite” was originally conceived as a quartet of stories, but Simon determined that its vignette about a Midwestern couple beaten down by the horrors and inconveniences of Gotham was rich enough to warrant a stand-alone treatment — and that it made more sense as screenplay than a stage script. So before he and Arthur Hiller collaborated on “Plaza Suite,” they made this uproarious fish-out-of-water comedy in which George Kellerman (Jack Lemmon) and wife Gwen (Sandy Dennis), visiting the city for a job interview, are subjected to a parade of indignities — lost luggage, hotel reservation errors, a mugging, a kidnapping, and transit, sanitation and taxi strikes — that make them long for their Ohio home. The film was remade in 1999 with Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn, but without Simon’s participation.
The 1970 version is streaming on DirecTV, and is available for rental or purchase via Amazon Prime Video, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, and YouTube.
‘The Prisoner of Second Avenue’ (1971)
Peter Falk and Lee Grant starred in this dark comedy about a couple coping with tough times during a New York City heat wave. The show ran for almost two years on Broadway, receiving three Tony Award nominations, including one for best play, and a win for Mike Nichols, who directed. The darker tone was a departure for Simon, a move that Walter Kerr remarked on in his review.
Simon, he wrote, “has taken the trouble to trouble his people, tease the laughs to see what real woes lie beneath them. He has made a magnificent effort to part company with the mechanical, and his overall success stands as handsome proof that humor and honesty can be got into bed together. But in winnowing out the last traces of contrived situation comedy, Mr. Simon may also have thrown away situation itself.” Simon wrote the screenplay for a 1975 film adaptation starring Jack Lemmon and Anne Bancroft. In his review, A.H. Weiler wrote that while the film “is less than an overpowering study of a married couple driven to distraction by the irritations and indignities of local middle-class living, it still scores valid points, both serious and funny.”
The film version is available for rental or purchase from Amazon Prime Video, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, and YouTube.
‘The Heartbreak Kid’ (1972)
Simon’s adaptation of Bruce Jay Friedman’s short story “A Change of Plan” teamed him with the comedian-turned-filmmaker Elaine May, who directed this critically acclaimed comedy about a dissatisfied nebbish (Charles Grodin) who abandons his new bride (Jeannie Berlin), while on their honeymoon, to pursue the elusive girl of his dreams (Cybill Shepherd). The psychology and laughs were darker than Simon’s work to that point, and critics reacted favorably; Vincent Canby deemed it “a first-class American comedy, as startling in its way as was ‘The Graduate,'” writing that it “manages the marvelous and very peculiar trick of blending the mechanisms and the cruelties of Neil Simon’s comedy with the sense and sensibility of F. Scott Fitzgerald.”
The Farrelly Brothers remade the film in 2007 with Ben Stiller, Michelle Monaghan and Malin Akerman, without Simon’s participation.
‘The Sunshine Boys’ (1972)
Alan Arkin directed the first Broadway production of this nostalgic, melancholy comedy, with Jack Albertson and Sam Levene originating the roles of Willie Clark and Al Lewis, a pair of aged vaudevillians who attempt to soothe their toxic relationship long enough to make a high-paying reunion appearance on a television special. Running 538 performances, it received Tony nominations for best play, best director and best actor (Albertson, who won a Drama Desk Award for the role). Clive Barnes called it “quite extravagantly funny and yet also quite extravagantly sad,” noting that “Mr. Simon has finally gotten his tears crystallized and come out as a really serious writer.”
In 1975, Simon wrote a film adaptation, directed by his frequent collaborator Herbert Ross, with Walter Matthau and George Burns taking over the leading roles. Burns won an Oscar for best supporting actor; Matthau received a nomination as well (for best actor), as did Simon’s screenplay. Vincent Canby called it “the sort of movie that makes you grin almost continuously.” In December 1997, Klugman and Randall, who played the roles of Oscar and Felix in the “Odd Couple” TV adaptation, headlined a Broadway revival of the play, which ran for 230 performances. “'The Sunshine Boys’ still works and probably always will,” Ben Brantley wrote of the restaging. “It’s the author’s most eloquent statement on comedy as a defense system.”
That same month, CBS aired a new TV movie of the play, again adapted by Simon and updated to the 1990s, with Woody Allen and Peter Falk in the leading roles.
The 1975 version is streaming on FilmStruck, and is available for rental or purchase on Amazon Prime Video, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, and YouTube.
‘Murder by Death’ (1976)
Sending up the 1970s detective movie craze, Simon wrote this broad satire of the Agatha Christie-style manor mystery with an all-star cast (including Peter Sellers, David Niven, Peter Falk, Maggie Smith, Eileen Brennan, Alec Guinness, Elsa Lanchester, James Coco and Nancy Walker) playing satires of such classic characters as Charlie Chan, Miss Marple, Sam Spade, Hercule Poirot, and Nick and Nora Charles. Vincent Canby wrote it was “one of [Simon’s] nicest, breeziest screenplays, a parody murder mystery that appears to be the cheerful confession of a man who, more often than he should, has sat up until all hours of the night reading to find out who did it, and who has then promptly forgotten.” Two years later, Simon and director Robert Moore teamed up once again with Falk and Brennan for “The Cheap Detective,” in which (as in “Murder by Death”), Falk starred as a Humphrey Bogart-style private investigator.
“Murder by Death” is available for rental or purchase via Amazon Prime Video, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, and YouTube.
‘The Goodbye Girl’ (1977)
Simon received his third Academy Award nomination for this original screenplay, in which a newly dumped single mother (Marsha Mason) is forced into an “Odd Couple"-style relationship with a guitar-strumming, yoga-practicing new-to-New-York actor (Richard Dreyfuss). They initially drive each other crazy but, of course, eventually fall in love. Dreyfuss won the Oscar for best actor; in addition to Simon’s script, the film was nominated for best actress, best supporting actress (for Quinn Cummings) and best picture.
In a reversal of his usual migration, Simon subsequently adapted the film script for the stage. The Broadway musical version of “The Goodbye Girl” debuted in February 1993 and ran 188 performances, with Bernadette Peters and Martin Short in the leads. Nine years later, Simon removed the music and rewrote the script again for a TV movie adaptation, directed by Richard Benjamin. Jeff Daniels and Patricia Heaton took over the leading roles.
The 1977 original is streaming on FilmStruck, and is available for rental or purchase at Amazon Prime Video, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, and YouTube.
‘California Suite’ (1978)
Expanding the premise of “Plaza Suite” and moving it across the country, Simon set this four-act comedy/drama in Suites 203 and 204 of the Beverly Hills Hotel, telling the stories of visitors from New York, Philadelphia, London and Chicago. The original Broadway production cast George Grizzard and Tammy Grimes in three roles each, and Barbara Barrie and Jack Weston in two; under the direction of Gene Saks (who inaugurated several of Simon’s plays on Broadway), it ran 445 performances. Clive Barnes raved, “Because Mr. Simon makes us laugh so effortlessly, so professionally and so subtly, we tend to think of him as our friendly neighborhood purveyor of the slick, mechanized, homogenized and sanitized joke. He is more.” Herbert Ross directed the 1978 film version, which eschewed the doubling and filled the story with an all-star cast, including Jane Fonda, Alan Alda, Walter Matthau, Richard Pryor, Michael Caine, Bill Cosby, Elaine May (the director of Simon’s “Heartbreak Kid”) and Maggie Smith — who won an Oscar for playing an actor nominated for an Oscar. “Simon’s comic gifts are displayed to their best advantage,” Vincent Canby wrote.
“California Suite” is available for rental or purchase via Amazon Prime Video, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play and YouTube.
‘Seems Like Old Times’ (1980)
Simon teamed up once again with his “Heartbreak Kid” star Charles Grodin for this 1980 hit, which also reunited “Foul Play” stars Chevy Chase and Hawn as a divorced couple thrown back together when he’s falsely accused of robbing a bank. Hawn hides her ex in her garage — both from the authorities and from her current husband (Grodin), the Los Angeles district attorney — and a good old-fashioned door-slamming farce ensues. Janet Maslin deemed the film “Neil Simon in very funny form, which is to say that the belly laughs, while intermittent, are belly laughs just the same.” “Seems Like Old Times” is available for rental or purchase on Amazon Prime Video, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, and YouTube.
‘Brighton Beach Memoirs’ (1983)
In his Broadway debut, Matthew Broderick won a Tony Award for his role as a stand-in for Simon’s younger self (named Eugene) in this autobiographical play, set in 1937 Brooklyn. Frank Rich praised Simon for “growing beyond the well-worn formulas of his past,” and mixing “comedy and drama without, for the most part, either force-feeding the jokes or milking the tears.”
The play was the first in what is known as Simon’s Eugene trilogy, which also includes the Tony-winning play “Biloxi Blues” (1985), about Eugene’s Army basic training in 1943 (a “joyous and unexpectedly rewarding new comedy,” Rich wrote) and “Broadway Bound” (1986), about Eugene’s break into show business (“messy, in both the positive and negative senses of the word,” in Rich's estimation). All three plays were turned into films: “Brighton Beach Memoirs” in 1986, starring Jonathan Silverman; “Biloxi Blues” in 1988, starring Broderick; and “Broadway Bound” as a made-for-TV movie in 1992 starring Corey Parker. A 2009 revival of “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” directed by David Cromer and starring Laurie Metcalf, Jessica Hecht, Santino Fontana and Noah Robbins, closed a week after it opened to the shock of many in the theater world, including the playwright. “I’m dumbfounded,” said Simon, who was 82 at the time. A companion production of “Broadway Bound” was also scrapped.
“Brighton Beach Memoirs” is available for rental or purchase via Amazon Prime Video, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play and YouTube.
‘Lost in Yonkers’ (1991)
Simon won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award for this drama, set in 1942, about two teenage brothers who are sent to live with their grandmother, a Jewish refugee from Germany, above a candy store in Yonkers. Three actors — Mercedes Ruehl, Kevin Spacey and Irene Worth — won Tony Awards. Rich wrote a mixed review, calling the play “hardly Mr. Simon’s most accomplished work,” but praising “the riveting Ms. Worth and Ms. Ruehl” for performances that made the show perhaps the playwright’s “most honest” work. Worth and Ruehl reprised their stage roles for a 1993 film adaptation that also starred Richard Dreyfuss.
“As adapted by Mr. Simon himself and directed smoothly and adroitly by Martha Coolidge,” Janet Maslin wrote, “Neil Simon’s ‘Lost in Yonkers’ is sometimes more picturesque than powerful. But it conveys all the warmth and color of the original material.”
The film adaptation is streaming on Amazon Prime Video. It is also available for rental or purchase on iTunes, Vudu, Google Play and YouTube.
’45 Seconds From Broadway’ (2001)
Simon’s last original work on Broadway was this comedy set in a coffee shop frequented by flamboyant actresses, egomaniacal producers and other assorted theater types. The play, which starred Louis Zorich and Rebecca Schull, was inspired by Cafe Edison, a restaurant on West 47th Street that “doubled as a downscale dining club for producers, stage managers, actors, ticket-takers, stagehands, musicians and countless other creatures of old Broadway,” as Glenn Collins wrote before the restaurant, also known as the Polish Tea Room, closed in 2014. In his review, Ben Brantley called the play a “paper-thin valentine to New York” that had “a heart as soft as melting butter.”