Is Neil Simon still funny? (Hint: This may be a trick question.)
Sometimes you revisit the humor of the past and come away gasping for oxygen. Evelyn Waugh? Dawn Powell? “Bringing Up Baby?” “Ninotchka?” “His Girl Friday?” Society has come a long way in the last couple of decades, but when I think of these examples, I doubt it’s gotten any funnier. Maroon me on a desert island with some Marx Brothers Blu-Rays and I might lose interest in getting rescued.
Then there are the times when you revisit the humor of the past and wonder what all the fuss was about. Lenny Bruce? Bob Hope? Johnny Carson? “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town?” “The Jerk?” Fran Lebowitz is still alive, I realize, but probably the kindest thing I can write about her is that she’s a venerable relic of an ancient, comedy-challenged civilization. Comedy is subjective, of course. Martin Scorsese, whose sense of humor I usually trust, thought Lebowitz was hilarious enough to merit 200 minutes of film, roughly the same amount he needed to explain what happened to Jimmy Hoffa.
All of which is to say: I have no idea why people find Neil Simon funny, but that’s just me. When I saw “Plaza Suite,” currently being revived on Broadway with real-life couple Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick in the starring roles, theatergoers hooted and sniggered from start to finish, and afterward they rose eagerly for their ovation while I shook my head in mute horror. Borscht-y humor is alive and thriving.
I suppose it’s possible I would have given “Plaza Suite” a standing ovation, too, if Matthew Broderick’s understudy Michael McGrath hadn’t been subbing in for him that night (Broderick got COVID, and as of this writing, Parker has it, too — the show is being extended a week to make up for some of the canceled performances). Then again, McGrath has a Tony, so I doubt he was the problem.
Plaza Suite is an annoying little entry in the “everything’s connected in a building” genre (see also William Inge’s seven-part “Apartment Complex,” the early Oscar-winner “Grand Hotel,” or Krzysztof Kieślowski’s TV series “Dekalog”). It’s three mini-plays in one, each centering on a different middle-aged couple played by the same two actors: in Act I, a wife and her cheating husband clumsily trying to celebrate their anniversary; in Act II, a big-time Hollywood director and an old flame he’s clumsily trying to seduce; in Act III, a frazzled mother and father of the bride clumsily trying to make sure the wedding goes smoothly. All three of these scenarios are clichés in 2022, and all three were clichés when the play premiered in 1968. The only broader insight I picked up on was: Wow, sex is messy and kids today sure are strange!
Clichés aren’t necessarily lethal, and one person’s cliché is another’s timeless truth. The problem with “Plaza Suite” is that its clichés don’t work together. Act I is sweet and melancholy, but Act II sweeps all that sweet melancholy under the rug and replaces it with a hunk of date-rape-y slapstick (the big-time Hollywood director plies his old flame with vodka slings, waits until she’s feeling dizzy, and then asks if she’d like to lie on the bed — ha!). It’s an abrupt switch for the audience and an even more abrupt switch for McGrath and Parker, who seem to be trying to split the difference between serious and slapstick with their acting styles. Parker does a better job of this than McGrath, but there’s only so much either of them can do with the material — a trio of trifles from a Broadway superstar who by that point in his career could have turned his grocery list into a sold-out show.
I’m sure I would have had an easier time with the switch if I’d found “Plaza Suite” funnier. And if you found it funny, I’m very happy for you. A question, though: if Neil Simon’s writing is so uproarious, why does he quadruple-underline every joke, wring every drop of humor out of every bit as though there’s a drought? At the end of Act I, when the husband walks out on his wife and the bellhop innocent asks, ”Will your husband be coming back?”, why does the wife have to say, “Funny you should ask,” when everyone in the theater has already grasped the double meaning?
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that tight plaid pants, curly hair and dorky white-guy dancing are inherently funny. Why, then, is there so much vamping in Act II, as though we need to be reminded every 10 seconds that tight plaid pants, curly hair and dorky white-guy dancing are funny? Let the tight plaid pants, curly hair and dorky white-guy dancing speak for themselves! At the end of Act III, after the mother and father of the bride have expended much energy trying to convince their daughter to go through with the wedding, the groom sets her right with two words: “Cool it!” — does the father really need to say, “He says two words and she comes out!”?
I’ll never understand, which kind of annoys me. But I also kind of enjoy not understanding. It reminds me what my own sense of humor is like — all the Groucho and Matt Groening and Monty Python and Nathan Fielder and “Tim and Eric” and “Key & Peele” and “Eastbound & Down” coursing through my bloodstream, keeping me from clapping for this play. Feeling cheerfully kvetchy about Neil Simon is a very Neil Simon way to feel, anyway. Maybe, deep down, I’m a true fan.
Jackson Arn is the Forward’s contributing art critic. He is a finalist for the 2022 Deadline Club Award for arts reporting.