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Canonizing Saint Simon?

Neil Simon is, it turns out, in line to be one of the greats. The Broadway revival of his Jewish family play, “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” was supposed to be offered in repertory with the second of its two sequels, “Broadway Bound.” David Cromer — whose recent productions of “Our Town” and the avant-garde musical, “The Adding Machine,” were highly acclaimed — was meant to direct both. In other words, it was official: Simon was a master and his play a modern classic.

But the first show closed after one week, and its follow-up was also canceled. “Broadway Bound,” in other words, will not live up to its title.

Given his hugely successful career in light comedy, this sudden bestowal of gravitas was surprising; but maybe it shouldn’t have been. Starting in the early 1960s with “Barefoot in the Park” and “The Odd Couple,” Simon became the mainstream comic theater voice of the postwar — or as it may soon be called, the “Mad Men” — generation. Yet for years he never received the respect accorded his more anarchic and challenging Jewish comic contemporaries like Philip Roth, Joseph Heller and Bruce Jay Friedman. In 1979, Simon lamented that he was “dismissed by academia,” and he quoted Clive Barnes’s description of him as “rich, successful, and underrated.”

Perhaps to rectify the situation, he attempted, at the start of the ’70s, a serious drama, “The Gingerbread Lady,” and later in the decade he wrote more cutting comedies, like “The Prisoner of Second Avenue” and “Chapter Two.” But it was only in the ’80s, when he began investigating his childhood — and making open reference to his religion — that prestigious awards finally followed.

While Simon always had a Jewish comic voice — especially in his hit, “The Sunshine Boys” — he was a member of the “Write Yiddish, cast British” generation and generally kept the ethnicity of his characters elusive. “Brighton Beach Memoirs” was clearly an effort to change that, to show his true self and artistry by writing a Jewish Depression play modeled on Odets’s searing “Awake and Sing!”

Mixing jokes and tears, the original 1983 production of “Brighton Beach Memoirs” won two Tony awards and ran for a stunning 1,299 performances. It began an autobiographical trilogy: The second play, “Biloxi Blues,” included a subplot about antisemitism in the military, and the conclusion, “Broadway Bound,” portrayed more Jewish-family angst. Three years later, “Lost in Yonkers” depicted different characters but, set in 1942, featured Holocaust refugees. In an interview before it opened in 1991, Simon bitterly predicted: “I’m telling you now, John Guare is going to win the Pulitzer [for ‘Six Degrees of Separation’]. Even if my play is successful, I will never win the Pulitzer.” After the expression of such naked need — or perhaps such canny campaigning — he did in fact win the coveted Pulitzer Prize for drama.

In the years since, Simon has continued to write plays, but never with the success he had in earlier times. The new “Brighton Beach” production was clearly intended to restart his calculated — or merely instinctive — march toward inclusion in the American canon.

Cromer did his best to complete the mission but was shot down mid-march.

The play is narrated by Eugene Jerome (Noah Robbins), a 14-year-old Simon stand-in navigating puberty, his literary ambitions and his mother’s liver-and-cabbage dinners in 1937 Brooklyn. He shares close quarters with his voluble but loving mother, Kate (Laurie Metcalf); his overworked but wise father, Jack (Dennis Boutsikaris), and his sincere roustabout of a brother, Stanley (Santino Fontana). Recently, they’ve had to open their home to his hapless aunt, Blanche (Jessica Hecht), and her two daughters; sickly, pampered young Laurie (Gracie Bea Lawrence) and fetching teenage Nora (Alexandra Socha). The family members experience small crises that threaten their togetherness, as the Nazis punish distant relatives overseas.

It’s been traditional to pair “cool” (read cerebral) playwrights with “hot” (read haimish) directors to heighten warmth and accessibility: for example, Pinter and Beckett with Alan Schneider. This production did the opposite, assigned a serious and earnest director to tamp down a playwright’s pizzazz, to replace his shtick with subtlety and his showmanship with credibility. What was gained was a clear evocation of the play’s “meaning”: Cromer’s creation of an utterly believable family unit underscored the enforced intimacy that poverty imposes on people. Whether the material merited his diligence and care was answered in the negative by ticketbuyers, but was that fair?

From his young leads, Cromer got exemplary work: Robbins was endearing as Eugene; Fontana was tough and touching as his admired brother, and Lawrence was ideal as Laurie, the young asthmatic cousin encouraged to be ill. The results were more mixed with the grown-ups: Hecht was too mannered as the wilted aunt; and while Metcalf and Boutsikaris were forceful and funny as the parents, they hit no home runs and lacked a certain Jew-ne-sais-quoi. In fact, Cromer largely rejected the ethnic — de-schvitzing and un-plotzing the play in favor of the “universal.”

This sincere and responsible approach only exposed what was always flawed about the play: It has low stakes (even for a comedy); its insights are boilerplate (especially in the confrontation scenes between the women); it avoids the truly uncomfortable (the father is attracted to the pretty older cousin, but the plot thread is dropped), and it ultimately expresses a complacent and sentimental view of parental love and family life (although Simon himself has said his upbringing was “terrible” in a home “repeatedly broken” by his father’s frequent absences). John Lee Beatty’s set underscored the play’s comforting superficiality by providing a highly populated house that looked big and roomy, not worn and hemmed in.

So the revival, while well meant, was doomed to deny Simon his much desired place in the annals of great artists. But, ironically, it did offer us a chance to admire his enduring comic skills. The dinner scene in which the older brother and cousin conspire to get their younger siblings to defend them — he has endangered his job; she has been offered an acting role — was particularly hilarious.

In fact, before his push began for the Pulitzer and posterity, Simon wrote two failed and largely forgotten comedies that, if successful, might have put him on a different path. “God’s Favorite” (1974) was a modern version of the Job story in which a filthy-rich businessman is tested by God with maladies from tennis elbow to hemorrhoids; in “Fools” (1981), people in a Russian town not unlike the fabled Chelm are cursed to be so stupid that even successfully sitting down is a huge accomplishment. The plays ran a total of 156 performances (he describes the opening night of “God’s Favorite” as “a humiliation”). Yet while crude and silly, they are also tough-minded, politically incorrect — a term not yet coined when they premiered — and daringly funny, closer in quality to the black comedies written by Simon’s (initially) more acclaimed peers. While not naming any religion, they are also suffused with genuine Jewish folklore and feeling. Perhaps reviving them in repertory would have been more interesting, since they aren’t constrained by typical ideas of “greatness.”

In the meantime, “Promises, Promises,” the 1968 musical with a book by Simon, has been rumored for a Broadway revival in the spring. The drama of his career (or maybe just the comedy) will continue.

Laurence Klavan is a playwright and novelist living in New York City.

Watch a clip from one of “Brighton Beach Memoirs” first and only performances on Broadway:

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