Neil Simon’s Legacy has Spoiled his Best Plays for Millennials

Within walking distance of the sea in the little New Jersey town of Cape May stands a playhouse eponymously named the Cape May Stage. They are dedicated to providing South Jersey with a full season of contemporary plays and hosting a playwright symposium every year for the writers of tomorrow. They also provide a slot for a play from the American theatre canon. This month? Barefoot in the Park by Neil Simon. A play about two polar opposites in the weeks just after they get married.

The Cape May Stage’s professional cast and crew did their best to transport us to the world of 1960s New York. The sets designed by Brian Dudkiewicz made it feel that we are really on the sixth floor of a Brownstone overlooking Washington Park. John Eckert, the lighting designer, collaborated to make everything feel as if the exhaust from a million cars and cigarettes were wafting in the very air we breathed. As the cast of New York and regional veteran actors began to unfold one of Simon’s most famous stories, however, I noticed something for the first time.

We talk about plays written four hundred years ago as “dated.” But in the fifty-three years that Barefoot in the Park has been around, something else has happened. Neil Simon’s work has become hopelessly cliché. Don’t worry, it was his fault. Allow me to explain.

It only took thirty-six years for Neil Simon’s fresh characters to become two-dimensional sitcom archetypes that we’ve all seen before.

A Legacy of Polar Opposites
Holly Williams and Stephen James Anthony played Paul and Corie very well. They exchanged witty banter and quick dialogue like the seasoned pros that they are. It’s quite possible that they, like me, encountered this scene or several others in acting classes throughout their undergraduate training. Neil Simon plays are very common among acting students because his most famous roles have become acting archetypes, not just in the theatre. Paul is the “straight as an arrow” lawyer who wants to do nothing more than go over his briefs in the morning while sitting in his briefs at the kitchen table. Corie is the free spirit housewife that wants to do nothing more but to love life and let go. He’s neat and she’s messy. He saves and she spends. Does this ring a bell to any of the nineties kids out there?

If you guessed Dharma and Greg, you’re right. If you don’t know, that’s the TV sitcom that came out in the nineties about the uptight Harvard lawyer that married a hippie yoga instructor. It only took thirty-six years for Neil Simon’s fresh characters to become two-dimensional sitcom archetypes that we’ve all seen before.

But this wasn’t accidental. Neil Simon made the idea that polar opposites are funny famous with his 1965 play The Odd Couple. The play was adapted into the a famous Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon movie and two sitcom iterations. If you look at most of the early plays he wrote in the sixties, you’ll see the same trend of movie and TV adaptations. All of the plays centered around some kind of polarizing difference between two characters.

Back to Barefoot in the Park. Not only are Corie and Paul stereotypical at best, they became a proto-cliché of Simon’s design. And they’re not the only ones in the play. Another major part of the drama comes from Corie’s mother, Mrs. Banks. Actress Marlena Lustik cut a flighty figure. Corie only wants two things from her mother: to get her approval and to get her a man. If you know any sitcoms at all you can find a single mother-in-law or mother with a new beau. The one that comes closer to mind to me is Tim Taylor’s mother in Home Improvement who starts a fling with his high school shop teacher. Victor Velasco, while funnily portrayed by Roy Steinberg in this production, is now not new to anyone. Look at any sitcom on TV and I will show you at least one episode where they deal with a wacky neighbor. Television is full of Victor Velasco’s.

Paul Bratter, played by Stephen James Anthony, and Corie Bratter, played by Holly Williams. Photo by Aleksey Photography, 2016.

The Dated Concept of Picking a Side
Clichés are not as bad as some people claim. Clichés work because at their core they are true. We have all seen a Paul, a Corie, or a Victor Velasco at some point. We may look at Mrs. Banks and see our own mothers looking back at us.

In addition to the characters, a lot of the plot of Barefoot in the Park still rings true. Several times when Paul and Corie were on stage I would feel the urge to nudge my wife and give her that knowing look, only to find her own elbow in my ribs. We have all been a Corie and a Paul, respectively. I can remember arguments that we have had that would make Paul and Corie think we went too far. Inasmuch as my wife and I are newlyweds trying to make it in the world together, we are just like the young protagonists of this show. In every other cultural and social viewpoint, however, we may be on different planets.

My wife and I are Millenials. Corie and Paul would be our parents. If they were presenting us this story, it would be how they started out in a worn down apartment with a hole in the roof and little money and worked their way up to who they are today. Maybe, as the clichéd older people they are, they will end the story with the equally clichéd rant of “kids these days.”

Corie and Paul were a single income household with the ability to not only have a place of their own but pay their utilities. In New York! My wife and I both have college degrees, try to work as much as we can, but are still living below the poverty line in her childhood bedroom in her parent’s house.

We’re very familiar with sitcoms. We’ve both seen the movies and other shows that are the product of Neil Simon’s vast legacy, but the big thing that stuck out watching the play is that in today’s world, Corie wouldn’t exist. Every couple our age we know has a dual income household. It’s both a choice and a necessity. It’s a necessity because we both have to work just for the luxury of being broke. It’s also a choice because most of us have been raised with the idea that having a career you love, not just a job, is what we should strive for.

But that doesn’t mean that Paul would exist, either. My wife and I work hard to play hard. We go out on dates and post our goofy pictures on the beach to social media. I’m an incorrigible academic and she’s a mastermind marketer but we still live for the days when we turn off the phones and go on silly adventures. Our parents had to choose between the straight-laced or the free spirit. Sitcoms capitalized on that polarity. But instead of making a choice we picked “all of the above.”

actors performing
Cast of Barefoot in the Park: Paul Bratter, played by Stephen James Anthony, Corie Bratter, played by Holly Williams, Victor Velasco, played by Roy Steinberg and Mrs. Banks played by Marlena Lustik. Photo by Aleksey Photography, 2016.

History Needs a Future
But does all of this mean that Barefoot in the Park has no place in the theatre culture? Quite the opposite. I feel that Neil Simon and all of the other playwrights in the American theatre pantheon need more space on the community stages. Yes, the new audiences may be spoiled because they’ve seen it on TV, but they don’t know that theatre is what spawned it. They don’t know that the American stage is the grandfather of American pop culture. Yes, the characters in the play aren’t very relatable to us anymore, but neither are Shakespeare’s. These plays need to be seen and they need to be discussed for their contributions to our culture.

However, programming a season is a balancing act. A new theatre has to balance the old plays with the new. Theatre will die out if we only stick with the safe plays of yesteryear. We do best when we, like Cape May Stage, show Barefoot in the Park alongside new works by playwrights who were influenced by those who came before. I think Simon would be proud that there is so much new good theatre out there that he doesn’t dominate the balance anymore.

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Shakespeare's characters aren't "relatable"? Simon is a master of rhythm, heart, timing. But dinner theatre actors and directors leaned hard on the rhythms and neglected the heart, and like the hammy stentorian Shakespearean actors, almost squeezed the plays arid.

Stereotypes are a funny thing. They all started from a real place, even if that is unrecognizable today. The only problem is that stereotypes change over time, sometimes to match the way that group has, and other times to be its own entirely separate entity. These archetypes are a good basis for characters but they cannot be all that a character has or people will get bored quickly. Character archetypes should be treated like they are in witness protection. They are friendly and easy to get along with at first but when someone recognizes them for who they truly are they must be changed drastically in order to survive.