During my recent 8 night visit to London, I was able to have a look at 5 very disparate offerings in the West End, which is how the British spell “Broadway”.
I saw two of them on successive nights, both were revivals of very successful plays, and ridiculous as it sounds, it interested me to see how both of these gifted playwrights of another era expertly delivered material familiar to them, each in his own voice.
One does not often hear Eugene O’Neill and Neil Simon examined in the same article, but I felt that connection, so here goes.
Neil Simon was born in 1927 and he discovered early on a good defense mechanism, a way of protecting himself from the misery and unhappiness of his disruptive lower middle class Jewish upbringing. He has said he “wanted to laugh until he was able to forget what was hurting.”
Eugene O’Neill was born in a hotel room overlooking Times Square in 1888. As a child, he spent most of his first seven years on the road, touring with his parents James and Mary Ellen O’Neill. His father had abandoned a promising stage career to lucratively tour in a stage version of The Count of Monte Cristo, playing the lead role over 6,000 times over 30 years. In later years, Eugene would accuse his father of selling out and he blamed him as well for the touring life his mother hated, which he felt was in part responsible for her becoming addicted to drugs.
From these roots, supplemented by the influence of his older brother who was slowly becoming an alcoholic, he drew much material for his writings. Though O’Neill’s mother was hooked on morphine, and Simon’s mother was merely into constantly polishing the dining table that had been bequeathed to her by her mother, both boys could not wait to flee, to fly the coop, to explore the world outside the one in which their families were tied and imprisoned.
The majority of Simon’s plays deal with very personal matters. His 3 Bs Trilogy – Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound, takes him from his teens to his twenties. His Pulitzer prize winner, Lost In Yonkers, takes him back a few more years.
He covers his first marriage in the first of his many solid hits, Barefoot In The Park. The tragic early loss of that first wife is covered in Chapter Two. Many of his 33 plays deal with peripheral aspects of his family life. The Odd Couple was sparked by his big brother Danny’s experiences sharing a post-divorce apartment with a male friend.
Simon needs to write in order to live, as did O’Neill. When he wandered too far from his own life in search of new material, he occasionally floundered. Walter Kerr once wrote: “Neil Simon did not have an idea for a play this year, but he wrote one anyway.” That was in reference to Star Spangled Girl, and it went belly up. Others,like God’s Favorite (a play about Job) and The Good Doctor (a Simonized Anton Chekov), allowed him to rev up his imagination, but to little avail. Books to musicals like Little Me and Sweet Charity earned him pots of money, but little else.
O’Neill too used his family life as source material, but the results were different, to put it mildly. Only once, in Ah, Wilderness!, did he write a play about a family he wished had been his own. It’s a charming play, but other writers wore rose colored glasses more decorously than he. Long Day’s Journey is his major opus, written near the end of his life. The writing of it caused him so much anguish, he forbade any production of it during his lifetime. Add to that an alcoholic father who ended his days as an unfulfilled artist who knew he’d made a terrible, irreversible choice early in his career, and the rage in him could only be calmed by drink.
O’Neill’s brother, whom he loved as the one closest to him in his eary life, could offer him nothing but contempt as he slid down the slope with whiskey as his constant companion right up to his premature death. And his mother’s descent into madness never left him either. He felt guilt all his life because the quack doctors his stingy father hired had treated her post-partum pain following his birth by offering her only the crutch of narcotics. She often reminded O’Neill that had he never been born, she would have led a drug-free life. This is not a good thing for a mother to say to her sensitive son.
In Long Day’s Journey, now at the Apollo in London, we spend but one day in the company of this very dysfunctional family going about its everyday ordinary business, and as played by a quartet of fine actors, we can only feel empathy for O’Neill, and gratitude for his power as a writer, for capturing all the attraction they had for each other, all the unbridled love that was tempered with blame, anger and sorrow.
David Suchet inhabits James Tyrone (i.e. James O’Neill) totally, showing us the not often seen tender and passionate side of him when he and his ill wife have rare moments of connection early in the day. His Irish-American accent is spot on and we can easily see the fine classical actor his James Tyrone might have been had he not been terrified of “the poor house” in which he’d spent his miserable childhood.
Laurie Metcalf’s “Ellen” is a highly strung fading beauty so close to exploding in the early hours of this long day. Later on she succumbs to occasional visits to her bedroom to “lie down” upstairs, the relapse that ends her trial remission. Metcalf leaves us with the image of a wounded butterfly, valiantly flapping its wings until it must finally collapse in a heap, remembering the days of her life in which “we were happy – for a time.”
The Sunshine Boys, over at the Savoy, is not quite an autobiographical play but Simon certainly knew and understood his creations, Al Lewis and Willie Clark, his title characters. They are two ex-vaudevillians who had great success for 43 years, now retired when we meet them eleven years after their acrimonious “divorce”, which bitterly ended their partnership as well as their careers.
Clark (Danny deVito) still works occasionally because his nephew Ben (a very strong Aaron Levy) is a young theatrical agent who digs up what jobs he can. Lewis and Clark have not spoken in those eleven years, but Ben’s great coup is he has come up with an offer for them to appear on an Ed Sullivan hosted CBS TV Special honoring the great names of vaudeville, and he wants “The Doctor Sketch” starring The Sunshine Boys as its headline act.
The pairing of Danny DeVito and Richard Griffiths creates a couple as odd as that of O’Neill and Simon. They match Astaire and Rogers, Stanley and Livingstone and others for each brings something the other doesn’t have. Griffiths has class, a classical background, an impeccable ear for dialect, and a dry sense of humor that has us in stitches. DeVito is a little guy, an ‘in your face guy’ and no one could look more hilarious than he in a formal jacket over a pair of red striped pajama pants. Their timing has the glorious flow that the Lunts had — they use each other so beautifully that when they playfully talk to each other during their riotous curtain calls, one can only hope they are as happy working together as they appear to be.
If O’Neill had tackled this subject he would certainly have made the battle between his four Tyrones seem as child’s play, compared to the release of the pent up hostility that has been simmering for eleven years over an incident that happened at their last performance. And had Simon tackled the Tyrones in Long Day’s Journey, he’d have sent them all off to the beach for a swim at its final curtain.
Both of these fine Pulitzer Prize playwrights engage us, illuminate characters we may not have known personally but they make us care for them, to understand them, and though Simon gets us there with the fine brush of humor and O’Neill leaves us numb but enriched by his view of the goings on, they both send us home with a keener understanding of the human comedy, or the human tragedy, depending, I suppose, in part on what you bring to the theatre yourself.
Actors and audiences will always be grateful for these writers. I’ll imagine that if they’d met, they would have found much common ground on which to enjoy a long and satisfying walk, for both found solace and relief in the outlet that theatre offered, and these two brilliant productions present their views impeccably. If you are in London in the months ahead, go visit Lewis, Clark and the Tyrones. They are very lively company.
The Sunshine Boys is playing at the Savoy Theatre, Savory Court and Strand, London, Details and Tickets
Long Days Journey Into Night is playing at the Apollo, 31 Shaftsbury Ave, London. Details and tickets