He’s arguably the most successful American playwright of all time, if you measure ‘success’ in terms of wealth and popular appeal. Yet despite dozens of hit plays and movie screenplays, Neil Simon does not carry the weight of Albee, O’Neill, Williams, Miller, or Wilder. Google the top ten American plays of all time and none of his appear (1). How then do you earn respect when your work is produced hundreds of times across the world annually?
Doesn’t seem fair, does it. Yet, the flip side, openly acknowledged by the man himself, is that Simon is very Chekhovian in his manner of human observation, bringing poignancy forward wrapped in humour; and no one would dare call Anton Chekhov a lightweight!
Barrie-based professional actor and director Candy Pryce would agree. Candy directs two segments of South Simcoe Theatre’s production of Simon’s London Suite which opens later this month in Cookstown. It’s familiar territory; she has appeared on stage in the female version of the famous Odd Couple in Orillia, and has directed Rumors for Barrie’s Kempenfelt Community Players.
London Suite is a collaboration of four stories; A writer confronts his manager who has absconded with his money; a daughter attempts to convince her mother to go on a date; a man asks his ex-wife for money to pay the medical expense for his partner with cancer; and an America couple have lost their tickets to the Wimbledon tennis final.
And the production itself is also collaboration, that of three directors, with Candy Pryce overseeing and mentoring two newer directors, Sandy Bishop and Sally Wente. It makes for an entertaining evening of theatre, and an interesting project in community theatre development for South Simcoe.
John Bleasby met Candy for lunch and a chat about the project and about Neil Simon’s standing amongst the great of American theatre.
Why ‘London Suite’, and why now?
It created an opportunity for the group actually. I sit on the South Simcoe Play Selection Committee, and we have an ongoing issue of finding new directors for our plays. Because London Suite is made up of 4 distinct and separate one-act plays, it gives an opportunity to individuals working their way towards directing a full production. There was similar approach taken a few years ago in Orillia, so I thought ‘Let’s do it again.’ At the same time, we wanted to to ensure that the entire work had continuity, so I suggested that one director should have overall responsibility, with the others working under that director. After that idea was accepted, I put on another hat and applied to be that overall director for the project! I will in fact be directing two of the four plays; Sandy Bishop and Sally Wente will do one each.
‘London Suite’ is the last of the Suite plays, as it were. The original ‘Plaza Suite’ goes back to the mid-60’s with ‘California Suite’ and then ‘London Suite’ falling roughly 20 years apart after that. Any concerns about relevancy?
We’ve actually been looking at London Suite for a few years before it made it onto our final list. Simon’s earlier plays from the mid-60’s and 70’s like Plaza Suite do come across a bit dated. And California Suite was recently performed in this region. London Suite is more contemporary in content certainly.
It’s hard to pick favourites, but does any one of the London Suite segments stick out for you?
I particularly enjoy the second scene between an actress named Diana and her ex-husband Sidney, partly because it connects with California Suite; the same two characters 10 years later. And also of course because I am attracted to the character of Diana who is an actress, and it’s a part I’d love to play. It’s a very moving scene to watch but at the same time you have the relaxation of being able to laugh.
Casting 4 One-Act plays seems like 4 times the work.
With professional theatre, you keep searching until you find the person who’s right, rejecting as many people as you need to. In community theatre, you cast the people who are interested in participating in the project. It seems particularly difficult these days for any group to find men, and so I approached directly some men I knew and asked them to audition. And then there is the issue of ages. You see a lot of middle aged women, which makes a mother-daughter situation harder to cast. Do I get a much older woman to play the mother of a middle-aged woman, or a young woman to play the daughter of a middle aged woman? It gets to be a puzzle and you have to use your connections to get the appropriate people.
How did the three directors collaborate, and to what extent?
All three of us were at the auditions, we all took notes, and we all discussed each candidate. Then we sat down as a group with the stage manager and put the puzzle together. Even before that, we had a director’s meeting where we discussed our impressions of the play, some of the common themes. Afterwards, I pretty much left them on their own; I didn’t want to micro-manage. Now that we’re closer to opening, I’m coming to rehearsals to ensure we are meeting the outlines of what we discussed earlier.
The title ‘London Suite’ of course suggests British accents, and accents are always an issue in community theatre. How have you handled this?
We dove right in and have given it a shot, letting people do their best. Some of the actors are in fact quite accomplished with the British accent. With others we’ve been working one-on-one, and the actors themselves have been working on their own using internet –based resources.
Has this aspect of the production been the win-win everyone at SST hoped for?
Overall the project has worked out very well. The directors have been able to stretch their own wings but at the same time had the benefit of a large experienced production team to catch them if they make a mistake. I was never worried about Sandy’s and Sally’s ability to direct; it was giving them the opportunity to learn about all the other aspects of directing a show, which they’re gaining through production meetings and so on; dealing with personalities, taking a leadership role.
Let’s talk about the playwright himself. What do you say in response to the opinion of some who do not take Simon’s plays seriously despite his financial success and popularity?
Actually, it’s funny when you talk about his financial success. He writes in his biography how he and his first wife were terrible with money and followed terrible advice. He was even advised to sell the rights to The Odd Couple outright, well before it became one of the most produced plays in America, before the TV series, before the movie. He didn’t get any money from that! In fact, the first part of London Suite is about a writer who’s been ripped off by his financial manager. There’s an autobiographical aspect to that as there is with all his plays. But it’s true; Simon’s material is often regarded as being lightweight and that’s the same as what I felt before I started working on his scripts.
But you’ve come around to another view?
What I have discovered is that, in general, all humour comes from pain of some sort, and this is particularly so with Neil Simon when you listen to what his characters say. As an example, I came off a production of a play called night Mother which is about suicide, to the female version of Simon’s The Odd Couple. I thought this would be a pleasant relief after a pretty heavy show. I played the role of ‘Florence’ and the first thing she does is come on stage and announce that she’s going to commit suicide! It wasn’t as heavy as Night Mother, but it was still serious. It’s just that Simon’s characters are funny people.
So this is how Simon deals with serious issues?
Humour is the way we cope with pain. It’s the way we talk to each other to get through the difficulties of life. Simon is a master of that. I find when I read his plays, particularly his so-called middle period, is that I’ll read the dialogue and know the people are funny and say funny things, but I’m not laughing; often I’m crying. Some of the scenes and situations are heart-rending. He manages to suck you in by using humour.
London Suite opens January 30th and runs for 12 performances until February 16th
at the Old Town Hall Theatre
1 Hamilton Street, Cookstown
For tickets, please call 705-458-4432