Burnishing lines to a fine patina Playwright: Neil Simon's 30th play, 'Proposals' is ready -- after more than a handful of rewrites -- for a pre-Broadway tryout in Washington.

October 02, 1997|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

You might think that, after 30 plays, this writing business would get easier -- that there wouldn't be as many rewrites, that Neil Simon would get it right the first time.

But play No. 30, "Proposals," which opens a pre-Broadway run at Washington's Kennedy Center today, had eight full rewrites before it went into rehearsals, and the changes keep on coming.

"I put one in just the other day," Simon says, referring to a rewrite he did on the plane home from the show's stop in New Haven. "I put in a new ending to a scene -- one last thing I wasn't very happy with. I got it and phoned it in. The actors put it in that night."

There is a reason Simon titled his 1996 memoir "Rewrites." At age 70, he has won a Pulitzer Prize and four Tony Awards. He is the richest dramatist who ever lived, and his plays have been seen by more people than have seen Shakespeare's. But he still firmly believes the adage that plays aren't written, they're rewritten.

"In the beginning, rewrites mean 50, 60 pages, then 30, then 10. Once you go into rehearsal, every single day, on every other page, there'll be new lines, and it's constantly being rewritten," he explains. "There's a percentage you work on. You rewrite 25 lines from various parts of the play. You put in those 25 lines. If 9 or 10 of them work, you're way ahead of the game. You know there's going to be 10 that don't work. You're constantly rewriting the rewrites. It's exasperating, but you keep doing it."

In the case of "Proposals," a play he's been working on for six years, he's had more time for rewriting than usual. "This has been sort of in my mind for a long, long time because I'd been thinking about my first wife, Joan. When she was a young girl, she was brought up more or less by a nanny, an African-American and they had such an interesting relationship, because they spent so much time together. That was the seed. I started wondering about what that relationship was about."

The result is Simon's first play featuring a major black character, a woman he calls Clemma Diggins, who is portrayed by Tony Award-winning actress L. Scott Caldwell. The play is set in the 1950s, a time period he chose for two reasons. First, it marks the start of the civil rights movement. "It's kind of a poignant moment, I think, and yet, as you'll see, it's a feeling of mixed blessings for someone like Clemma -- giving up the family she loved but also moving on to her own life as the whole culture moved on."

He also chose the 1950s because that's when he met the woman who became the model for Clemma, at Camp Tamiment, a resort in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania. There, Simon and his brother Danny wrote comedy sketches for the weekend variety shows. "Proposals," set in the Poconos, is a rarity among Simon's plays, since it takes place outdoors.

A romantic comedy that also features, among its nine-member ensemble, a middle-aged heart attack victim, his ex-wife and grown daughter, "Proposals" has been described as Chekhovian. ("I knew the minute I was going to have a tree on stage they were going to say 'Chekhovian,' " he says.) Simon, however, thinks of it more as his "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

"If there's a dominant theme, as in 'Midsummer Night's Dream,' it's love and all the variations of love," he explains, "and everybody in the play is affected in one way or another by it."

Tryout in D.C.

Washington is the fourth and final stop before "Proposals" opens on Broadway at the Broadhurst Theatre, on Nov. 6. Although many of Simon's plays have tried out in Washington over the years, his last two experiences were mixed, to say the least. In 1986, when "Broadway Bound," the third segment of his semi-autobiographical trilogy, played a pre-Broadway run at the National Theatre, the playwright was rushed to the hospital with chest pains (they turned out to be a false alarm).

Five years ago, he returned to the same theater with "Lost in Yonkers," which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. Opening night at the National, however, was the night the United States entered the Gulf War. "I'm standing in the back of the theater, I suddenly see 20 Secret Service men run in and pull out all of the senators. Half the theater left," Simon recalls.

Now Simon, a recipient of the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors in 1995, is back in Washington with his first tryout at the Kennedy Center. "I like playing Washington," he says. "I've always found the audiences very sophisticated."

No signs of slowing down

Entering his eighth decade, Simon might be expected to slow down. His output, however, suggests anything but retirement. Shooting was recently completed on his latest movie, "The Odd Couple II -- Travelin' Light." Starring Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon in a return to their movie roles of Oscar and Felix, the sequel is set years later, when Oscar's son marries Felix's daughter. "I had such a good time writing this movie," he says. "I never got stuck. I knew those men so well."

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