As an Altoona High School English teacher, Kim Butnick doesn’t have a lot of time to pursue her community theater passion. But when she hears a Neil Simon play is being done, she does her very best to be there.
“Neil Simon was able to capture the essence of humans, and that is what draws me toward him and his writing,” Butnick said.”Anytime someone said they were doing a Neil Simon show, I wanted to be in that show. I wanted to try and take what he wrote and put it on stage.”
People around the country mourned the death of one of America’s most prolific playwrights when Simon, 91, died Sunday of complications from pneumonia.
He had written more than 30 plays and musicals, becoming most known for his “Brighton Beach” trilogy, “The Odd Couple” and “Barefoot in the Park.”
In his lifetime, Simon has received four Tony Awards, the Pulitzer Prize, the Kennedy Center honors (1995), four Writers Guild of America Awards and an American Comedy Awards Lifetime Achievement honor, among numerous other accolades.
In New York City, Broadway will honor Simon by dimming its lights at 5:45 p.m. Central Time today for exactly one minute.
Here in the Chippewa Valley, his loss also is being felt.
Butnick most recently was in the Chippewa Valley Theatre Guild’s female version of Simon’s highly successful play, “The Odd Couple,” in January.
She said she’s grateful to have had the opportunity to be in one so recently, though she expects it won’t be her last Simon show.
“The thing about his shows are they are a little bit timeless,” Butnick said. “He wrote from the heart and he understood what people do. As a literature teacher myself, that’s what makes classics ‘classic’ — the author gets people, and Neil Simon got people.”
His shows in their heyday also were popular, according to retired UW-Eau Claire theater professor Wil Denson. Not only on Broadway, where in 1967 Simon had four productions running at the same time, but also at the university.
Denson worked as a performer and director during UW-Eau Claire’s summer theater program, which ran from 1965 to 1998. Many of the 26 productions the program did in that time were Simon’s, Denson said.
“Summer Theater was so addicted to him that one summer as part of our brochure, I included the phrase, ‘A season without Simon is like a summer without sunshine,’” Denson recalled. “People just enjoyed going to (his shows).”
Simon’s shows helped carry the program financially, Denson said, adding it was “very seldom a Neil Simon show didn’t sell out.”
During the UW-Eau Claire summer theater runs, Simon’s productions were brand new to theater, and Denson said there was no other playwright quite like him.
“At the time, (Simon) was kind of ahead of the curve,” Denson said. “He had written for television and later a lot of his plays went on to film, but when we were doing them they were just ahead of the rest of the comedies of the time.”
He thinks the well-written comedy and well-developed characters are part of the reason they were so successful. But, Denson added, many also involved few set pieces and props, making Simon “a perfect playwright” from a technical standpoint.
Butnick appreciated Simon’s comedy as well, but believes it is the humanity evident in his shows that sets them apart.
She cited “Brighton Beach Memoirs” from Simon’s “Brighton Beach” trilogy as her favorite show. She performed it with CVTG in 2008.
“‘The Odd Couple’ is fun and you get a lot of laughs, watch people fall in love with the characters, but ‘Brighton Beach’ was amazing because you had laughs one minute and then close to tears at the end,” Butnick said. “It’s about family.”
Simon’s trilogy is, according to the Associated Press, what many consider to be his finest works. They also prominently feature his own life. The trilogy follows his alter ego, Eugene Morris Jerome, from his childhood to the U.S. Army and then a budding career as a writer.
Whether Jerome’s career would have taken off the way Simon’s did, we will never know. But it is clear Simon’s death reverberated throughout the nation’s theater community, from Broadway to Eau Claire.
Arthur Grothe, UW-Eau Claire’s artistic director of theater, called Simon “one of the premiere comedic playwrights” in the country.
He said Simon’s work has been done by everybody from community theaters to colleges, high schools andprofessional theater companies.
“What has always impressed me watching his work was how well the jokes and the timing is written because the shows are really precise and they consistently work,” Grothe said. “To me, his death is poignant because he is one of the pivotal figures in American dramatic literature, and we are losing those figures.”
He hopes companies continue to run Simon’s shows, but even more so that up-and-coming and future playwrights learn from Simon as a writer. In a profession that’s not nearly as common with the advent of streaming services and film, he thinks it’s more important than ever to cultivate those writers.
“I hope we continue to see his work done at various levels, both professionally and down to high school,” Grothe said. “I hope we continue to see people craft plays with the care and the ear for the human condition that Neil Simon did.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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