Theatergoers around the country and company members at Peninsula Players mourned the death of one of America’s most prolific playwrights when Neil Simon died Sunday, August 26 of complications from pneumonia. Simon was 91 and had written more than 30 stage works, 18 of which have been produced by Peninsula Players. His prevalent works include “Brighton Beach” trilogy, “The Odd Couple” and “Barefoot in the Park.”
Over the course of his career, Simon earned four Tony Awards, a Pulitzer Prize in 1991 for “Lost in Yonkers,” the Kennedy Center Honors (1995), four Writers Guild of America Awards, an American Comedy Awards Lifetime Achievement honor and many other accolades. He was hailed as the “King of Broadway Comedy.”
Simon helped to redefine popular American humor, bringing to light the struggles of urban living and the agonizing conflicts of family relationships. “I always found the absurdity of how we live our lives,” he said in his memoir, “Rewrites.” “I always looked for the pain when I wrote about it.”
Simon brought this unique view of life to the screen as well as the stage. He first wrote for radio and then for television with The Sid Caesar Show, The Phil Silvers Show and The Garry Moore Show. He influenced generations of comedy writers, actors and directors with his dialogue and intriguing characters.
“He prodded us — in laughter and tears — to contend with the traits that make us human,” Dan Rather eloquently said. “Another voice who understood the power of art in our American story now belongs to eternity.”
Door County audiences laughed while Felix and Oscar (“The Odd Couple”) tried to live together and while God-fearing tycoon Joe Benjamin went through all manners of temptations in “God’s Favorite.” Patrons checked into Suite 719 along with its various guests in “Plaza Suite” and delighted in the reunion of a former vaudeville comedy duo in “The Sunshine Boys.”
“Writing is an escape from a world that crowds me,” Simon said in the New York Times in 1981. “I like being alone in a room. It’s almost a form of medication — an investigation of my own life. It has nothing to do with ‘I’ve got to get another play.’”
In New York City on August 30, Broadway honored Simon by dimming its lights at 5:45 p.m. Central Time for exactly one minute. At Peninsula Players many company members recalled the first Neil Simon play they ever performed in or directed.
Actor Sean Fortunato (“Now and Then”) recalls identifying with Simon’s character Eugene from the “Brighton Beach” trilogy as a teenager while Katherine Duffy (“The Hollow”) felt Charity Hope Valentine of “Sweet Charity” was the most challenging role she has ever played. “Such humor, such heart and he helped me find who I am,” Fortunato said.
In high school, the first play David New (“The Foreigner”) directed was one of the three acts of “Plaza Suite.” New directed Fortunato, Timothy Edward Kane, Amy McKenzie, William Norris, Carmen Roman and Greg Vinkler in the Players 2004 production of “Broadway Bound.”
In the 1960s, Peninsula Players Executive Producer James B. McKenzie had professional theater connections that spanned the nation, from Westport, Connecticut where he produced at the Westport Country Playhouse, to the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. McKenzie began his association at the Players in 1947 as an apprentice and went on to produce more than 2,000 plays in his lifetime.
Through McKenzie’s association with Emanuel “Manny” Azenberg, Simon’s Broadway producer, he was able to negotiate the Midwest premières of a majority of Simon’s plays from 1963 through 1986. Company folklore is that Manny was an apprentice at the Players at one time; however, I have not been able to establish that as fact. I did find an Emanuel Linton who performed in the Players’ 1955 production of “Laura.” Did Manny apprentice here under the name Linton, maybe? Azenberg graduated from New York University in 1955, served in the Army for two years then worked as company manager for several productions. He may have been in Door County during the summer of 1955.
What I can confirm as fact is that Manny’s wife, Lani Sundsten, directed the 1977 production of Simon’s “California Suite” at Peninsula Players. Sundsten was the replacement and stand-by for the character “Bunny” on Broadway as well as its production stage manager.
Sundsten as director was a caveat for the 1977 production of “California Suite,” General Manager Tom Birmingham said in an interview with the Green Bay Press Gazette. Simon had given Peninsula Players personal permission to do “California Suite,” but he told McKenzie that all of the negotiations for the play had to be done through the New York producer who insisted somebody from New York direct the show. Peninsula Players had the exclusive rights to produce “California Suite” that summer for two weeks from June 28 to July 10, and Sunsten headed to Door County to direct the play before it closed on Broadway July 2.
Players alumni Jeannette Leahy, Neil Patrick, Vicki Childers, Dennis Kennedy, Amy McKenzie, Chris Wilson, Robert Thompson and Jessica Epstein were under Sundsten’s direction that season. Sundsten went on to stage manage the Broadway productions of “Chapter Two,” “Deathtrap” and a little feline musical called “Cats.”
McKenzie, Azenberg and Neil Simon continued to collaborate and “Chapter Two” was performed at Peninsula Players in 1979 while it was still performing on Broadway. In the theater world this is seldom done. Typically, the Broadway production has to close before any other professional production can be produced. “Chapter Two” closed its Broadway run in December of 1979.
“Biloxi Blues” made its Midwest debut on July 29, 1986, a little over a month after closing on Broadway. Nancy Simon, Neil’s daughter, was a production assistant for the original Broadway production directed by Gene Saks. McKenzie gave Nancy her first opportunity to direct when he produced the Peninsula Players production in 1986. This is mentioned in “An American Theatre: The Story of Westport Country Playhouse, 1931-2005,” where in 1987 Nancy once again directed “Biloxi Blues” for McKenzie.
For the next few weeks, another prolific and award winning playwright’s work is on our stage. Joseph Zettelmaier, a Michigan-based writer, has written 26 plays and is a four-time nominee for the Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association Award for best new play and a two-time recipient of the Edgerton Foundation New American Play Award (2009, 2011).
Zettelmaier’s “Salvage” is an intriguing play that mixes drama with comedy, romance and mystery and is performing though October 14. Curtain times are Tuesdays through Sundays at 7 p.m. except Sunday, September 23 and October 14 at 3 p.m. For tickets or information visit www.peninsulaplayers.com or call (920) 868-3287. We hope you will join us by the bay, where the sun sets, the curtain rises and the stars shine!