Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Gingerbread Chronicles

In 1970, Life magazine sent its reporter Richard Meryman to cover the tryouts of Neil Simon's The Gingerbread Lady, and I recently read the complete article, courtesy of Life's free digitized archives. Here's the link to the piece; let me know if the link doesn't work properly.

Though the number of advertising interruptions makes a modern TV show look smooth by comparison, it's a good article, and Meryman was lucky enough to get in on the most problematic tryout Simon had had up to that point.

The Gingerbread Lady was the darkest play Simon had ever written, a very self-conscious attempt to be as serious as possible while still retaining the form and style of his comedies. Both Simon and his longtime producer, Arnold Saint-Subber, got cold feet after the Boston reviews were bad, and they considered closing the show. Simon has argued that this was Saint-Subber's idea alone, but the article suggests that the Boston reviews brought out all of Simon's insecurity, and that he also wanted to close it unless he could think of a way of fixing it. Saint-Subber also wanted to close it, though, because he wanted to "protect" Simon: after an uneven producing career, Simon's plays had made him one of the few consistently successful producers of the '60s, and the fear was that a flop in New York would damage Simon's brand.

Finally, after much lobbying from the actors, Simon decided to rewrite, and he did so by eliminating a lot of the darkest material in the play. The play is about a self-destructive alcoholic named Evy Meara (Maureen Stapleton) who returns from rehab and gets the perfect chance to redeem herself: her beautiful, witty and all-around perfect teenage daughter Polly (Ayn Ruymen) moves in with her mother to help her get her life back on track. In the second act, Evy's self-destructive impulses and the personal problems of her friends Toby (Betsy Von Furstenberg) and Jimmy (Michael Lombard) drive Evy off the wagon, and she ends the second act by going out to meet a violent ex-lover, who beats her up. The original third act was going to have Evy finally prove herself to be irredeemable.

In the rewrite, her most degrading behavior was eliminated, there was a suggestion that she could give helpful advice to one of her hanger-on friends, and the play ended on a hopeful note. These revisions disappointed some of the actors, who were rooting for Simon to go all the way and not cop out with a happy ending. This was always an issue that surrounded Simon from the moment he started getting more serious. It actually started with Plaza Suite. He originally thought it was going to be a full-length play about a man and woman's marriage dissolving. He wrote the first act and then realized that he couldn't write a happy ending without making it seem contrived -- so he ended it ambiguously, and made it the first of three one-act plays. Plaza Suite essentially was a show that got happier as it went along: the first play was very dark, the second was bittersweet but lighter than the first, and the last act was pure farce ("an entertainment piece," Simon called it somewhat condescendingly) that sent the audience out happy. Gingerbread Lady was going to play this process in reverse, getting darker and darker as it goes along from beginning to end.

Not having read the original version, I have no idea how it would have played, but it certainly doesn't seem like a play that lends itself to such a dark third act. You can see where the original version might have had more bite. In particular, there are two characters who appear in the first act, were originally supposed to come back in the third, and who just vanish from the play in the version that reached Broadway. But the play as it now exists does seem to be leading up to a happy, or at least hopeful, ending. To sustain a sad ending, a lot of the weight of the play would have to be on Polly, the daughter who tries to be a mother to her own mother. She can either get fed up and leave, or Evy can kick her out for her own good, or they can reconcile and work together to make things better. And Polly is such a weak character, as written, that the only thing she seems capable of doing is coming back and working to redeem her mother.

It's hard to write about a Neil Simon play without somehow reviewing the audience -- ever since at least The Odd Couple, what a critic thinks about Simon is partly what he thinks about the middle-aged New Yorkers who are perceived to be Simon's core audience. I'm trying not to do that here, but when I read Polly's part, I do feel like she is the teenager a 1970 theatregoer wished he had, instead of his own. She has no apparent wants and needs of her own, no life of her own; she just wants to help her mom. She talks like she's at least 20 years older than she is, with occasional teenage references thrown in: "I'll never take another drop in my life. From now on I'm sticking with marijuana." (I used to say, as many people do, that all of Simon's characters talk alike. I no longer think that's true, but I do think that when he doesn't know what a character would think or feel in real life, he reverts to a sort of default style that could fit in any character's mouth, and that's what happens with Polly; he doesn't know, or won't write, what a teenager would talk about, so she talks like a generic Neil Simon character.) Simon and director Robert Moore fired the original Polly during rehearsals, and it seems like it was a part they never really licked; this weighs the play down, because it's basically weighted toward the relationship between Evy and Polly, yet Polly is not a convincing character at any moment. And the only thing she could convincingly do is keep trying with her mother; that's all she exists to do.

The play works better when dealing with Evy's two friends, who make sense as the sort of hangers-on a moderately successful showbiz personality would have around her. Jimmy, Simon's first gay character, who seems a bit reminiscent of Simon's Last of the Red Hot Lovers star James Coco (maybe I'm just saying this because of the name and the fact that Coco played the part in the film version), is a convincing portrait of an old young actor, the kind of guy who never got a break and is increasingly furious at having to grovel to directors who are younger than he is. And Toby (Betsy Von Furstenberg) is an aging-beauty-queen type of character who gets some very good aging-beauty-queen speeches. Simon's plays sometimes leave you wishing they had fewer characters; his next play, The Prisoner of Second Avenue, is a gripping two-character comedy for the first few scenes, and suddenly loses steam when new characters turn up in the second act. And The Gingerbread Lady seems to work best as a three-character play about Stapleton, her two friends, and their unhealthy mutual dependence.

The Life article doesn't deal with the play beyond the New York reviews, but while it wasn't a hit, it wasn't the embarrassment Saint-Subber feared (Saint-Subber would be dumped as Simon's producer one play later). The reviews were respectful enough, it ran 193 performances, Stapleton won the Tony, and Simon eventually sold it to the movies, where he rewrote it as a vehicle for Marsha Mason under the title Only When I Laugh. The experience of writing the play probably also informed his next two comedies, The Prisoner of Second Avenue and The Sunshine Boys, which are two of his most durable plays; the experience of writing a darker show informed his comedy writing in some interesting ways. (Though his attempt at an out-and-out black comedy, God's Favorite, is beyond redemption.) So his decision -- bring the show into New York but rewrite it to be less bleak -- probably worked out for him, and for Stapleton.

This was also Simon's last three-act play, and he held out with that structure as long as he possibly could; nonmusical plays were switching to two acts all throughout the '60s (and even, in some cases, just cutting out the intermission altogether). The three act form in American commercial theatre is a bit like the two-act form in the American television sitcom, which is currently dying out in favor of more or fewer act breaks. The idea in both cases is to have a long first act that sets up everything we need to know about the characters and the situation, so that the writer can pile on a lot of complications very fast after the break. The second act is where all the complications get really bad, and the third act is where they're resolved. (In a two-act sitcom, you have the second act as a sort of combination of complication/resolution, sometimes followed by a tag where things calm down a bit.) The advantage of this structure is that it perfectly mirrors the three-part structure that almost every story follows: exposition/complication/resolution. The disadvantage is that the first act is almost all exposition, which means that the longest act is one where not much happens. It's not surprising that plays moved toward two-act or one-act forms, where the playwright could grab the audience early and not send them out again until something "big" had occurred.



1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There is something to be said about avoiding a last act wherein a self-destructive character doesn't redeem him or herself. At best, such a story offers lasting food for thought and a potentially compelling lead character. At worst, as in the recent abysmal motion picture "Country Strong" starring Gwyneth Paltrow as an alcoholic, depressed country superstar, it's just a weak story that's a huge downer which quickly tanked.