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|A CurtainUp Book Review
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer
Our October 24th review of My Life With Noël Coward--(see Review of My Life With Noël Coward by Graham Payn with Barry Day)--was written as a revival of Coward's Present Laughter began previewing at the Walter Kerr. This review of Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Neil Simon's new memoir, Rewrites is being posted without the Simon by-line on at least one New York theater marquee. However, since Simon's plays like Coward's are not limited to Broadway runs at least one of his thirty hit plays is sure to be playing or rehearsing on some stage somewhere as this is being posted.
With the review of the Coward book fresh off the keyboard, Simon's references to his fellow comedic playwright proved especially interesting. It seems Coward inadvertently gave Come Blow Your Horn, Simon's first play, the needed nudge from an anemic to a successful run. As Simon recalls, when his play finally opened on Broadway after some 23 rewrites, even some very good reviews failed to cause a stampede to the box office. Then Noël Coward, who had been in town and seen every show but his, found himself with one night to spare before leaving New York. He followed the super agent "Swifty" Lazar's hunch that "they might have a few chuckles at this Come Blow Your Horn thing. This resulted in a Coward quote by New York Post columnist Lenoard Lyons to the effect that Simon's play was "the funniest play in New York." Simon refers to Coward as one of his early master-of-comedy role models and is sure that had he been at the theater that night and known Coward was in the audience "it would have taken a Saint Bernard with a keg of brandy around his collar to get me through the evening." The link between the two playwrights is also evident in My Life With Noël Coward. Graham Payn, the author, refers to Simon when he discusses the years when Coward's plays were not meeting with great success. About one in particular, Suite in Three Keys, Payn notes that T"hey do say there are only so many plots in the world!" The play to which he alludes, of course, is Plaza Suite.
Come Blow Your Horn 's many rewrites, besides moving Simon to the first step up the ladder of success as a playwright, also give his memoir its title. His comments on this subject explain much about his craftsmanship and creative energy. Unlike some writers, he actually likes and welcomes rewriting. As he explains it: "With a screenwriter, once they've shot your scene, it's history...the more live performances of my play I see, the more chances I get at improving it. It's as if you were in school taking a test, and initially walking away with a grade score of 65. But the next day you get to take the exact same test, with the same questions, but now with new ansers that you've thought about overnight. You're bound to improve into the 70s, 80s, and upwards. Never, however, will you ever get 100. That's saved for Shakespeare. The catch is, you not only must be willing to rewrite, but you must be able to rewrite."
There are many other "Simon sez" bits of theatrical wisdom scattered throughout this memoir, along with the poignant details of his happy first marriage and it's tragic end. Those who've followed Simon's career will recognize many of the comic and tragic events in his life from his plays. Yet, even though the outlines of the playwright's life experiences may ring familiar, the author's focus on his life with Joan and his beginnings as a playwright, makes for a solid and enjoyable reading experience. You like and respect Simon. You love and weep for Joan. The memoir ends with her death, when Simon is 46 and recollecting a Gwen Verdon song "Where am I going and what will I find?" Clearly a hint that there's more to come. So, stay tuned.
Both the cassette and book versions of Rewrites are available at the internet's Amazon book store.
the hard cover book
the paperback edition