I caught the Neil Simon bug when I was 13 years old and saw a production of Brighton Beach Memoirs. Eugene Jerome, the play’s lead character and narrator, is an adolescent navigating the peculiarities and awkwardness of entering his teens. I sat in the theatre riveted. I was going through all of the same things in my life at the time. I vividly remember laughing heartily and also tearing up, trying desperately to cover up my emotions as I sat next to my father.
After this, I became a student of Neil Simon and his works. As a 13-year-old boy, I didn’t realize and certainly wasn’t able to articulate why I identified with the show so much and why I wanted to familiarize myself with the rest of Simon’s plays.
However, in my preparations to direct Hotel Suite, it has become apparent to me why these plays keep me laughing and why they have such a profound impact on me. I’ve realized that Simon has a great compassion for his fellow human beings. He shows a preference for conventional moral behavior; however, he has great tolerance for moral fallibility. He suggests mutual concession in personal relationships; however, he never punishes those who persist in extreme modes of behavior. Simon captures the human condition in a palpable way unique from any other playwright I’ve read.
When asked how he comes up with the hilarious situations in his plays, Simon responded, “My view is, ‘How sad and funny life is.’ I can’t think of a humorous situation that does not involve some pain. I used to ask, ‘What is a funny situation?’ Now I ask, ‘What is a sad situation and how can I tell it humorously?’”
Hotel Suite is the manifestation of Neil Simon’s quirks and strengths. This play pulls its scenes from his previous “Hotel plays:” Plaza Suite (1968), California Suite (1976), and London Suite (1994). It is the perfect mixture of bittersweet comedy and farce. Whether bodies are desperately flying around the stage or whether they’re seated on a sofa talking, we can’t help but see ourselves in them, and then laugh at them and ourselves.
When Director Mike Nichols saw the set that Oliver Smith had designed for the Broadway premiere of Simon’s Plaza Suite, he felt like something was missing. The set was a beautiful, classy, elegant hotel room that looked like a million bucks. Nichols praised the design for all of its grandeur and crispness; however, he thought that something was missing. He turned to Smith and said, “I think this hotel room needs a huge visible crack in one of the walls.” Smith looked at him in shock and said, “What? A crack, are you crazy?” Nichols responded, “The room should have some sense of the human condition. Sure, everything looks all bright and shiny, but in actuality there is a blemish that we are constantly attempting to cover up.” Smith stared at Nichols for a few seconds and simply responded, “No chance in hell.” Neil Simon chimed in at this point, saying to the director of his show, “Sure Mike, we’ll put a big crack in the wall and then we’ll paint a big arrow pointing towards it with the words ‘this is a metaphor’ next to it.” The crack did not wind up making its way onto the set. Simon later acknowledged that while the crack seemed like it was overkill, he never forgot the idea behind it.
This shows the beauty of working on or watching a Neil Simon play, most especially Hotel Suite: amidst the laughs and crazy circumstances that he creates, at the heart lies a little crack that each one of us recognizes and covers up on a daily basis. This is why we have laughed, do laugh, and will continue to laugh at his plays.
–Hotel Suite Director Matt Silva
Neil Simon’s Hotel Suite plays Feb. 18-March 16, 2014 at Act II Playhouse in Ambler
Learn more at www.act2.org.