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SIMON SAYS : REWRITES. By Neil Simon (Simon & Schuster: $25.00, 397 pp.)

September 29, 1996|Steve Allen | Steve Allen, a comedian, playwright and novelist, is also an actor, vocalist, pianist, composer, lyricist and recording artist

I have often been annoyed by a certain approach to professional criticism in which you practically have to read the text analytically to discover that the critic--evidently loath to extend a simple, unqualified compliment--nevertheless actually liked what he or she had seen, heard or read. So not only do I tell you, at the outset, that I hugely enjoyed reading Neil Simon's memoir, I hereby state my willingness to do physical battle with any other reviewer who displays the effrontery to differ with my opinion.

There very probably will be nonesuch, of course. If they do emerge, they will have nothing to fear from Simon, since his good fortune as the most successful playwright since Shakespeare ("Brighton Beach Memoirs," "Plaza Suite," "Broadway Bound," "The Goodbye Girl" and "Lost in Yonkers," to name but a few of his many hit plays) presumably renders him immune from their paltry slings and arrows. But they will have to deal with me, so clearly delightful is the playwright's tale of self.

Not since Moss Hart's "Act One" have I read a book about the theater--and particularly that branch of the art that markets funniness--that amused me so much as does Simon's witty accounts of his adventures on Broadway. The observation that Simon writes funny is, of course, about as newsworthy as noting that the Grand Canyon is deep. But it does not necessarily follow that because a man can create one-line jokes for sale to assorted stand-up comics or even witty sketches for television shows--and in TV's truly golden age of comedy--that he can also produce polished narrative prose. Simon can.

The American composers in the popular idiom who did the great part of their glorious work in the 1950s had the enormous good fortune to have been brainwashed by the giants of the 1920s, '30s and '40s--the Kerns, Gershwins, Berlins, etc. We grew up listening to "Rhapsody in Blue," "Stardust," and "Body and Soul," so we were able to avoid writing songs like "Switchblade, Baby, I'm Gonna Stab You Tonight." The comic playwrights of Simon's generation had been similarly affected by the wit-rich humorists who came before them--Robert Benchley, S.J. Perelman, Ring Lardner, George S. Kauffman, Dorothy Parker, et al., humorists who, whether they wrote for the stage or the page, were masters of the well-crafted, although sometimes spontaneously tossed-off, line. There are traces of this blessed influence in Simon's work.

Referring, for example, to Shakespeare's prodigious output--all, including rewrites, produced in longhand on parchment with a scratchy quill--Simon says, "The quills needed for this enormous output alone must have taxed the poultry growers of the region to their capacity." Though the line is, needless to say, original with Simon, the style is pure Perelman, and long may it wave. I have had very few professional regrets, but one of them is that, at the end of the 1950s, after Simon had finished his long tenure on Sid Caesar's staff, he applied for a position on my own. I was not able to accept his exciting proposal because of the proviso that he would come aboard only as head writer, which would have meant that I had to fire a fellow named Leonard Stern, who had the job at the time. Since my concern with Stern's sensibilities would not permit me to drop him, I lost the services of a true master of the comic arts.

What not only the average reader but even those of us in the same profession might not have expected is the extent to which Simon--unlike most self-biographers--writes not about success, of which he has had enough to satisfy 20 men, but failure. It is astonishing, given Simon's track record, to read of instance after instance of professional doubt, inadequate text tossed overboard, plain bum guesses and bad reviews--all of which will be enormously encouraging to other playwrights, whether fledgling or seasoned.

It is, of course, his well-deserved prestige that makes it possible for him to graciously acknowledge where he has fallen short, but he writes so honestly that perhaps the ultimate value of his book is that it will bring encouragement to that large constituency known as the human race--to whom failure of one sort or another is the norm, and triumph an experience so rare that to most of us it never comes at all.

Many of the themes Simon has dealt with in "Rewrites" are common to mankind, not just the fraternity of playwrights. We are, after all, human beings before we are lawyers, dentists, ping-pong champions or Montana militiamen. We all know the sorrows as well as the joys of marriage and family life, and somehow it is personally encouraging to learn that a successful public figure like Simon has suffered through many of the same misadventures as the rest of us.

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