As if he still had somewhere to get to, Neil Simon finally arrived in 1986: 25 years after his first play, Come Blow Your Horn, opened on Broadway 1 or 18 plays and four musicals later. With more than a third of the decade remaining, Time magazine had the audacity to proclaim Broadway Bound “the best American play of the on its author also pronounced that “after decades of acclaims as a crafts man, Neil Simon may finally come to be regarded as an artist” If nothing else, the very fact that Time has declared Broadway Bound the best play of the 1980’s makes it so. Time is, after all, not in the dubious business of reporting on history, but creating it as well. Still, the disposition of an artist remains beyond the powers of even Luce’s empire. 

In the parlance of more thoughtful circles, Neil Simon has been viewed from the beginning of his career as a master craftsman, but no more. These same “thinking” people acknowledge that he is the most successful, the most popular of contemporary play wrights—indeed and as far as can be told, in the history of the genre. One of the more portable contentions for hype even conjectures that more people have seen Simon’s works than have seen Shakespeare’s. But until recently, and aside from his lone champion in Walter Kerr, the critics as well as the more pretentious theatergoers remained unimpressed. 

History may not be on their side. The oversimplified logic of the snob fails to recognize that Shakespeare was the most popular dramatist in his day. Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides, and Plautus were hardly elitists, either. Even Ibsen and Chekhov, after hurdling some early obstacles, achieved significance and attention long before their oeuvres were completed. Henri Troyat notes of Chekhov’s reception: “The pattern was familiar: most of Chekhov’s plays had received guarded if not hostile reviews before making a sudden hit with the public.” The same “pattern” perfectly describes Simon, who over the years apparently had been punished for his very popularity. 

The comparison is not entirely irrelevant. Over the years, critics who wanted to give Simon the benefit of the doubt have frequently invoked Chekhov’s name. However ludicrous the comparisons, both Chekhov and Simon have found a tension between comedy and tragedy. In his oeuvre to date, Simon has been most misunderstood to the extent that he has been dismissed as being exclusively a come dic writer. Where Chekhov and Simon differ most sharply is in their outlook: Chekhov’s more farcical impulses remained relentlessly pessimistic; Simon, who in some respects can be as tragic as Chekhov, cannot avoid being more hopeful. (Perhaps the difference is geographical—the Russian Steppes versus the American Plains?) For Simon, the comedy is cathartic, a release from the daily burdens of the death in life. For Chekhov, the ennui is inescapable—we sense that even if The Three Sisters made it to Moscow their mood would eventually prevail upon their new circumstances, and not the other way around. 

The comparison has never seemed as valid as it does today with two of the three plays in his new autobiographical cycle—specifically those that occur in the Jerome family home. In Brighton Beach Memoirs especially, the presence of the extended family (which finds Aunt Blanche and her two daughters living with her sister Kate—Mrs. Jerome) within the Jerome family seems to directly echo the Chekhovian mode. At the end of the play, the expected arrival of countless cousins from Poland, to escape the Holocaust, only adds to the Chekhovian feeling. 

The one thing Simon has always wanted was the one thing he lacked critical respect. As if his already busy muse were suddenly working over time, all of that has changed during the past three years with his alliterative trilogy of plays. Beginning with Bright on Beach Memoirs, which won the important New York Drama Critics Award for best play in 1983, picking up momentum with Biloxi Blues, for which Simon received his first Tony Award in 1985, and now culminating with Broadway Bound, which opened last December (the same month that the film version of Brighton Beach was released), Simon has emerged as one of the most praised American play wrights in the history of American theater. Although the scholars have yet to catch up with the new appraisals, the more academic encomiums seem imminent. Within a year or two, Robert K. Johnson’s critical study Neil Simon, published in 1983—will not be the only serious investigation on the bookshelf. (Parenthetically, Johnson’s first chapter is called “Broadway Bound”—it’s difficult not to construe some “bemused borrowing” by Simon.) 

Now that he is finally being taken seriously, what, after all, has Simon really done to bring about this “bountiful belated breakthrough” with his autobiographical trilogy? In fact, is this series of plays any more autobiographical than his first play, Come Blow Your Horn, which incidentally picks up precisely at the moment where Broadway Bound ends, when he and his brother leave home to establish themselves as adults in Manhattan? Or his next offering, Barefoot in the Park, which we knew all along was based on the early period of his first marriage? Or for that matter, his 1977 opus, Chapter Two, which described his difficulty in cop ing with the premature death by cancer of his first wife and his subsequent marriage to Marsha Mason? Even The Odd Couple, which many considered the best in the canon, derived at least partial inspiration from his brother Danny, who has turned up time and again in Simon’s life and in the plays, what has come before. When all is said and done, Simon did not grow up in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn that he has now immortalized, but rather in Washington Heights, located at the northern most part of Manhattan. He didn’t go to boot camp in Biloxi, Mississippi, but in Colorado. And when he and his brother Danny left home, it wasn’t to write for Broadway, but for CBS radio and later television, where they progressed from working on The Phil Silvers Arrow Show to joining the team (including Woody Allen and Mel Brooks) that wrote for Sid Caesar. 

Curiously, the new trilogy only seems more autobiographical than Imogene Coca’s Your Show of Shows. It’s also germane to note that Simon’s aunt and cousins didn’t stay for a time with his family, as he depicts in Brighton Beach; instead, he and his mother were actually taken in by them. 

To a certain extent, such dissembling and a rearrangement of the facts have always been the license of fiction without diminishing the notion of autobiographical connections. What does need explanation, however, is the rather mistaken supposition that Simon has suddenly turned to autobiography. The critics have been duped in part by Simon’s introduction of one Eugene Morris Jerome, perhaps his most loving invention to date. Eugene is the adolescent narrator who guides us through the Jerome household in Brighton Beach in 1937. Eugene turns up next in 1943 on the train bound for boot camp in Biloxi. But both in Biloxi Blues and in Broadway Bound, which takes place some years later back home in Brighton Beach, the narrative de vice is compromised when Eugene is not the first to greet us on stage. Eugene becomes more obviously what he has been from the start, just another Simon character, albeit one contrived to beguile us in a special, confidential way. 

Indeed, in Biloxi the story belongs as much to the ensemble of six new recruits as it does to Eugene. As Simon’s spokesman, Eugene is merely the one who lived to tell the tale. An argument could even be made that Arnold Epstein, the only other Jewish member of the platoon, is the more central force and certainly the catalyst. As far as the Simon formula goes, Arnold is the mentor and spiritual guide, the surrogate for Stanley in the two other “B” plays, for Alan in Come Blow Your Horn, for Leo in Chapter Two—in short, as we’re left to infer, for Danny Simon in Neil Simon’s life. 

For all of Simon’s efforts to resolve his relationship with Danny, that relationship continues to be mercurial and mysterious, at least to us and presumably to Simon as well. Perhaps his greatest masterpiece will prove to be a play more exclusively devoted to his relationship with his brother—the play which has yet to be written. The role of the paterfamilias in the autobiographical trilogy is too vague to shed any light on the more pivotal relation ship with the brother. While Mr. Jerome, though weakened by his heart condition, is definitely the head of the house in Brighton Beach, he is barely a shadow by the time of Broadway Bound, deserting his wife and family for an extramarital affair; he is even less of a character within the structure of the play itself. 

Eugene’s special position in Broad way Bound is even more jeopardized than it is in Biloxi Blues. As all are quick to agree, this last play in the trilogy pays homage not so much to Simon’s early days as a writer but to his mother, here realized by Linda Lavin’s bravura performance as Kate. If Kate’s already famous monologue in Act II is provoked by Eugene, still Eugene, who is sitting at the dining—room table, recedes along with the present while she relives the one glorious moment of her life when she danced with George Raft. This moment is destined to be recalled in the annals of theater history because the monologue as written, and specifically as portrayed by Lavin, transports us along with herself to an other time and another place that will live within the character.

During this episode, Eugene’s asides (“There’s a whole movie in this story, ma. One day I’m gonna write if or “And with my mother, I didn’t need God to punish me”) have as little effect on us as they do on Kate. And after Eugene fills in for George Raft and dances with Kate to a big band version of It Had To Be You on the radio, the Oedipal implications never get any deeper than, “Dancing with my mother was very scary: I was doing what my father was supposed to be doing but wasn’t.” This is the closest that Simon gets to the soul—baring which we usually associate with “art.”

While Eugene ultimately proves to be less of a meaningful figure in the trilogy than one might expect, numerous references abound throughout the trilogy to Eugene—as—Simon’s nascent development as a writer. But they are all facile, glib insertions, cheap shots, really. In a wonderfully ironic self coronation, Eugene is nicknamed “Shakespeare” in Biloxi. But none of these plays is self—revealing in the way that O’Neill often exposed himself and derived his art in the process. The only piece of self—criticism appears in Biloxi when Epstein offers: “You have to get involved. You don’t get involved enough, Eugene. . . . You’re a wit

ness. You’re always standing around watching what’s happening. Scribbling in your book what other people do. You have to get in the middle of it. You have to take sides. Make a contribution to the fight.” But even that advice is offset in the same play by the more flattering suggestion that Eu gene’s diary observations were legitimate insights: He summarizes Camey as a person who “can’t be counted on,” and Camey later admits that his girl back home used “those exact words” to describe him.

The most revealing line in the trilogy was unintentional. It arrives—of course!—as a humorous throwaway in Brighton Beach, after the dramatic reading of Mrs. Murphy’s letter to Aunt Blanche announcing that her son Frank won’t be able to keep his dinner engagement. When Eugene responds, “It was a sad letter, all right, but it sure was well written. Maybe I should have been born in Ireland,” how can we avoid hearing Simon him self pouring his heart out, wishing like Norman Mailer—that he were a part of the legacy that includes Yeats, Shaw, Beckett, O’Casey, Wilde, and to a lesser degree, Behan.

On a more mundane level, the integrity of the trilogy is disturbed by the startling realization that in the first play near the end of Act I, Kate tells her sister Blanche, “If Poppa ever heard me say those words, he’d get up from the cemetery.” By the time of Broadway Bound, which takes place in the “late 1940′ s” or roughly IO years later, their father has most miraculously arisen from the grave to appear as a full—fledged, feisty character, Ben.

Both the response to Mrs. Murphy’s letter and the line which suggests that Ben was dead were eliminated from the film version of Brighton Beach Memoirs. In opening up the film (and for example introducing Mrs. Murphy as a full—fledged character, circumventing the need for the letter), Simon and Hollywood have dissolved the Chekhovian spirit that congealed on stage. Aside from the sometimes elusive changes in the script, the most noticeable difference is that Blythe Danner is far more severe than Elizabeth Franz, who initiated the role of Kate. Nor does Jonathan Silverman achieve the special quality of disingenuous naiveté that was Matthew Broderick’s stock—in—trade and own contribution to the original Eugene—though he tries, and sometimes even too obviously.

But this is a digression, especially considering that Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, and Broadway Bound are three solid and mature works from one of our most accomplished playwrights. If they are not Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey in to Night, they may very well comp rise Neil Simon’s Long Day’s Journey.