I saw Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs on Broadway last night, and couldn’t help but marvel once again at the playwright’s brilliance. How he seamlessly blends funny with drama and always keeps it real. It’s what I strive for in practically all of my writing – but it sure isn’t easy. Funny comes pretty naturally for me, I’m happy to say (It’s a gift – I don’t own it); and high drama actually comes – well, easier than I thought it would for someone who’s always doing funny voices and cracking corny jokes. The way I see it, funny = entertainment; drama = story and heart. IMHO (in my humble opinion) the perfect story has plenty of both elements. Personally, I can’t sit through a heavy drama if it doesn’t have at least a splash of humor here and there. It’s like swallowing dry toast points without a refreshing beverage to wash them down. The trick is making humor and drama work effectively together in the same piece. It’s a delicate balance.
My favorite Simon play is his Pulitzer Prize winning Lost in Yonkers. Well, I actually never saw it onstage, but I saw the movie many times. One of my favorite tricks Simon employs is establishing something hysterically funny early on (like Aunt Gert’s speech impediment); then reintroducing it later in the play in the midst of a highly dramatic scene where you’d least expect it.
ARTY: How come Aunt Gert can’t breathe?
JAY: I don’t know. She can’t… She can’t talk right. She says the first half of a sentence breathing out and the second half sucking in. You’ve seen it.
ARTY: Do it for me.
JAY: Pop’ll hear it. He said no jokes, didn’t he?
ARTY: Only about Aunt Bella. Come on. Show me how Aunt Gert sucks in her sentences.
JAY: (glances upstairs first, then to Arty, imitating Aunt Gert’s voice) “Oh, hello, Jay. How are you? How’s your father? And how’s – (sucks breath in) – your little brother, Arty?”
ARTY: (gets hysterical) I love it. I love it when you do that.
JAY: I once saw her try to blow out a candle and halfway there, she sucked it back on.
Well, later on in the play, when Aunt Bella calls a family meeting to announce her engagement to her mentally-challenged boyfriend, the stuff really hits the fan. As an audience member, you’re on pins and needles, weeping, empathizing with poor Aunt Bella. Then suddenly Aunt Gert says a line, sucking half her words back in with a raspy gasp – and now you’re in hysterics, too.
Eliciting laughter is no easy task. Eliciting tears, not so easy either. But doing BOTH at the same time? Genius! Bravo, Neil Simon. I kiss the nethermost hem of your garment!