Tuesday, November 23, 2004


The critic Walter Kerr had a famous line in his review of Neil Simon's The Star-Spangled Girl (1967): "Neil Simon didn't have an idea for a play this year, but he wrote it anyway." Simon approvingly quotes the line in his autobiography, agreeing with Kerr that this is one of his worst plays, a play which he wrote without having "a clear visual image of the characters."

The play occasionally gets revived in summer stock and school productions; with only three characters and a very simple set, it's easy to put on. But I think one reason it never completely goes away is that the premise is always relevant, at least in theory: a super-patriotic young Southern woman, Sophie (Connie Stevens) goes to work for two guys who put out an underground leftist magazine: the editor/publisher, Andy (Anthony Perkins) and the writer, Norman (Richard Benjamin). Norman loves Sophie, Andy hires Sophie to keep Norman happy, Sophie argues with Andy about patriotism and values, Andy and Sophie wind up together, everybody works to put out the magazine. Curtain.

Of course, many of Simon's successful plays have plots that are every bit as flimsy. And despite Kerr's wisecrack, the idea of the play is a bit more substantial than the usual Simon play. In the late '60s, everybody was scrambling to write about the "youth movement" and the new radicalism thereof. The idea of Star-Spangled Girl is to take two twentysomething radicals and put them in the same room with a twentysomething anti-radical -- someone who has completely different values and opinions from the San Francisco-living, Dartmouth-educated guys. (Andy: "My feelings about this country run just as deeply as yours, but if you'll turn down the national anthem for a few minutes, you'll be able to hear what some of the people are complaining about." Sophie: "Well, Ah am one of the people and you are one of the things Ah'm complaining about.")

Most plays, movies and stories of this period pitted young heroes against older antagonists: the values of the older generation supposedly clashing with the values of the younger generation. Star-Spangled Girl, for all its many weaknesses, is one of the few things from this era that acknowledges that the generation gap is far less important than the culture gap: there is no monolithic "youth culture," because a young person from Arkansas belongs to a different culture than a young person from California. As you know, the national media is shocked, shocked every four years to discover that a very large country might incorporate several distinct cultures (this happens in Canada too, where you'll get people tearing their hair out over the horrible fact that people in one province aren't exactly the same as the people in another). So Star-Spangled Girl becomes oddly relevant as one of the few plays that deals directly with the differences between "Red America" and "Blue America" (though Sophie would kick you for calling her a "Red"), and provides a reassuring reminder that if culture clashes haven't gotten any better in America in the last 37 years, at least they haven't gotten any worse, either.

Unfortunately, Neil Simon isn't really the man to write a play like this. He's incapable of imagining a character who is as different from himself as Sophie is, so she becomes a dull cartoon, with no plausible opinions or feelings of her own, and no real cultural characterization beyond saying "Ah" instead of "I." But the writing for the men isn't much better, because Simon can't make them sound like anything but wisecracking New Yorkers; indeed, if you miss the occasional references to San Francisco, you'd have no idea that the play doesn't take place in New York.

And, as usual with Simon, most of the jokes are clearly identifiable as jokes, with clear setup/punchline structures and a rat-a-tat Henny Youngmanesque rhythm. I've always thought that part of my problem with Simon is that his jokes always look too funny on paper. That is, they're lines that are funny in and of themselves, just as funny when you read them as when you say them. That may be good joke writing, but it's not what I'd call great comedy play writing; the best laughs in stage comedy often come from lines that are not funny on paper, that are written with the knowledge that they will become funny because of the combination of character and situation. One of the reasons the TV sitcom eclipsed the Broadway stage comedy (and took away a lot of people who might in another era have written and directed Broadway comedies) is that TV sitcoms, the good ones anyway, had the confidence in their characters to write comedy instead of jokes. What was left in New York was Neil Simon, the human joke machine. It's too bad, really, because Star-Spangled Girl could have been pretty interesting in different hands. It might be a good subject for musicalization, actually -- set in 2005, with two blue-state guys and a red-state gal, fleshed out with a stronger plot and some additional characters, it could be a way of finding humor and fun in the current culture wars. Which, again, are pretty much identical to the culture wars of a bygone generation.

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