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Interview with the writer; That Neil Simon hit-after-hit touch: what makes it so successful?

Neil Simon doesn't alwaysm want to make us laugh. Some of his works are meant to be downright serious, beneath the one-liners and comic digressions. One such is his latest movie, "Only When I Laugh," based on an earlier play called "The Gingerbread Lady." It's the story of an actress (Marsha Mason) coming to terms with her teen-age daughter (Kristy McNichol) while recovering from an unhappy romance and a drinking problem. The situations are adult, the language is just rough enough to earn an R rating. And the characters are just complex enough to transcend the farcial dimensions of, says, "The Odd Couple" or "Murder by Death."

In sum, it's unusually weighty Simon work, though the dialogue is sometimes flat and the characters have the annoying Simon habit of communicating largely through wisecracks. Fleshed out and "opened up" from the confines of the stage, "Only When I Laugh" works better on-screen than "The Gingerbread Lady" did in the legitimate theater.

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Besides writing the screenplay, Simon served as coproducer of the film -- a first for him, though he has often filled a similar function "unbilled" by taking an interest in the casting and production of his shows. The director was Glenn Jordan, making his movie debut after years of stage and TV experience.

What's it like directing a film under the watchful eye of the author and producer, combined? "It was great," said Jordan during a recent interview. "Neil cooperated in every way, without imposing his own views. He likes people to push him,m by coming up with good concepts and suggestions. For instance, I wanted to make the humor organic -- not a string of jokes, but an integral part of the action. He went right along, and helped me accomplish what I was after."

Simon himself was happy working with Jordan, and delighted working again with Marsha Mason, who happens to be his wife. "I wrote the screenplay two years ago ," he said during a recent talk in a New York hotel room -- not quite a Plaza Suite, but close enough -- "and showed it to Marsha last year. She read it and said, "I have to play that lady!"

Which she did. Simon went on to discuss "Only When I Laugh" in detail, and make observations on his work in general.

"Only When I Laugh" seems more serious than many of your earlier works.

The seriousness was there before, only I didn't deal with it as much. There was the subject matter of "The Prisoner of Second Avenue," for example, or "The Sunshine Boys." These were basically serious plays -- not fluffy, light entertainment like "Barefoot in the Park," where nothing is really at stake.

ALso, I go back and forth between the light stuff and the more serious work like "Chapter Two." That may mix up people's minds about what it is I actually do. I'm not like a Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller, who always write serious work. In between, I'll do something frothy like "Seems Like Old Times."

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How does "Only When I Laugh" fit in?

It's different from many of the other plays, because when I deal with a serious aspect of the theme, I stay with it -- I don't suddenly break away to something funny. The funny things come out of the enjoyable moments in the story, like when the girls go shopping. When they actually come to grips with their problems, the tone of the writing is quite different.

As an essentially comic writer develops -- a Woody Allen, say -- the work sometimes tends to become darker. Do you agree?

Yes, the dark side does creep in, because more dark things creep into your life: losses and so forth. But it's also connected with the need for new challenges. You want to expand your work. Not necessarily to make it better -- my most lasting play is probably "The Odd Couple" -- but to do something different.

So I wouldn't be interested in writing an "Odd Couple" or "Barefoot in the Park" now. I think I'm more perceptive than I used to be, and I want to get into my characters more deeply. Laughs were very important to me, back then -- they were the only contact I had with the audience, the only way I could get them to listen to me. And I wasn't so prepared to probe deeply. But one expands, one grows.

I don't mean ever to give up comedy. My next picture with Marsha is a comedy , though a rather exotic one, with Jason Robards.As for the darker areas, I don't know how dark they'll get. My next plat, "Brighton Beach Memoirs" has seven characters; only one is at all funny, and that's only when he comments on the play as narrator. So it's dark and light at the same time. I think I'll always write that way. I'm never going to be Ibsen, and I don't choose to write that way. I don't see things that way.

You wouldn't write an "Interiors," as Woody Allen did, that was quite tragic?

I admired "Interiors," because I thought the theme was excellent -- a middle-aged couple being divorced, and the grownup children being affected. But Woody purposefully stayed away from any kind of humor. And I wondered, if there ism humor, why not deal with it? That's one reason why I've always admired Tennessee Williams's work: He always had humor in his plays. I laughed as much at "A Streetcar Named Desire" as at anything. Then again, there are some who can transcend that. Eugene O'Neill had very little humor, but his work is so powerful. There are all kinds of writers, and we don't all try to achieve the same thing. You write what you are, and O'Neill's life was certainly a lot darker than mine.

To return to "Only When I Laugh," the subject matter has held your interest for many years, from the original play 11 years ago until now. How would you describe it?

It's about a mother and a daughter, the lack of self-esteem, and friendship -- including the kind of friends who pull you down rather than lift you up.

When set you down this particular path?

I never quite recall the point of inspiration for anything I've written. It just sticks in there one day, and starts to develop by itself, and by then you've forgotten what the initial moment was.

Why did you focus on a daughter-mother relationship?

I have observed this. When I first wrote the play, my own daughters were little girls, but now they are teen-agers and above. I have been through some rough times, especially when my first wife was ill. My daughters were so supportive, and dealt with things in such a grown-up way, that some of this crept into the story.

Two of the characters ae a playwright and an actress who have been close to each other, and he writes a drama based on their experience. Are there echoes of your own "Chapter Two" here, since that play treated your relationship with Marsha Mason in fairly autobiographical terms?

Sure, there must be echoes, though not consciously. All my serious works are about things that have happened to me in the past, are happening to me now, or that I sense will happen to me in the future.

You don't seem uncomfortable about revealing yourself in your plays.

A writer inhibits himself by not telling the truth. I read many biographies of creative people, especially writers and painters an musicians. If you don't reveal yourself, you're lying somewhere along the way, and it will come out in the work. You don't have to be graphic, but you have to be truthful.

The autobiographical aspect is quite important to you, then.

Yes. And it's a very mysterious process, because you don't realize it's going on. You have to be careful, too, because you should be explicit only up to a point. I try to be honest about the other characters, also, and not just the character who represents me. But there are certain things you leave out. I could never write something like "Mommie Dearest" about somebody close to me. When I was a kid, especially a teen-ager, I went through some really rough times. What went on at home was really ugly. My new play, "Brighton Beach Memoirs," talks about that time -- but I try to show the parts of those people that were loving. They aren't loving all the time, and they aren't heroes. But I am kind to them, and show their better aspects, because that's the impression they left me with. As you grow older, you become more forgiving, because you see you have the same faults in yourself. >Continued on next page> >Continued from preceding page>

Still, you didn't have to be forgiving in "Brighton Beach Memoirs." You could have chosen a gloomier portrayal in the interests of the "dark side" we were talking about.

I don't mind making the gloomy choise if it will serve a purpose. There is an essence of life that I would like to pass along. If I put down everything these people did in their weakest moments, they would emerge so villainous that we would learn nothing from them. We would walk out and say, Who wants to be with people like that? Yet I certainly don't whitewash them.

The end of "Only When I Laugh" is also upbeat.

Maybe. Or maybe it's just a good day for the main character, and tomorrow she'll be down again. I would never impose a view of what happens after the movie ends.

This is connected with one of the main purposes I have in writing. It's something I found out in my own life, and when I discovered it, life became better -- when I found out I had choices. The people who are trapped in life are the ones who feel they have no choices. They say, "That's the way I am," like Felix Unger in "The Odd Couple." He wants to wallow in self-pity. But when you have choices, there are options to lead your life in a different way.

So there's no sure way to tell what happens after the end of a film lke "Only When I Laugh." People like happy endings, so they make them up for themselves, but they aren't necessarily true. It's characters that interest me, and that's what I want to write about.

How does your family feel about showing up in your work?

They have responded well. For instance, I've portrayed my brother in five or six plays. The other night, he said he's been the central character of more plays than Julius Caesar or Cleopatra!

"Only When I Laugh" is another step in your working collaboration with Marsha Mason. This has become a regular partnership.

It isn't because she's my wife. It's because she's superb. I practically married her because I had such respect for her ability. And this implied to me how intelligent she was. I have enormous respect for her, besides loving her for all her other qualities. Among other things, she is one of the most vulnerable actresses I have ever seen. Yet she can make a human being out of any character -- even someone like the girl in "Cinderella Liberty," who was as unlikable as anyone you'll ever find. . . .

When you begin to develop an idea, how do you decide whether it will be a movie or a play?

That's a good question. I'm never quite sure what happens. The only film that could have been a play first was "The Goodbye Girl," because the apartment was a central character in that piece. Generally, though, the idea seems developed as a play or film when it first comes to me.

If it's going to be a play, I try not to think of it as a film, because it pushes me in other directions. Lately, though it's been sneaking up on me; my more recent plays have more visual aspects than the earlier ones. For example, they don't have a single set -- like "Chapter Two," which has two apartments on the stage. And my new play, "Brighton Beach Memoirs," has five rooms at the same time. So my movie experience is creeping into the playwriting craft.

When "Chapter Two" was on Broadway, it seemed extremely cinematic -- maybe because Herbert Ross directed it, using his own movie experience. It actually had dissolves, just like a film.

Yes, it was very much like a movie. And I like that. The theater needs change.

Will you continue to move between the two media of stage an screen?

I'll never give up the stage, because I consider myself essentially a playwright. I was brought up with the stage, and I love it.

But I made a decision after 14 years of doing a play in New Haven each season and seeing all these 40- and 45-year-old people come in, and seeing all these 16 - to 24-year-olds lined up for the movie across the street. I wanted to reach that young audience. There were things I wanted to say to them. So I decided to get into films more seriously, rather than just adapting "The Odd Couple" or "Barefoot in the Park."

So I'm seirous about working in films. I want to go back and forth, doing both movies and plays.

Some people feel the movies are geared exclusively to kids nowadays.

Well, I never had children in mind, exactly. I can't write that way -- even "Murder by Death" is sophisticated, to some degree, though it's geared to a younger audience. When I write, I don't have a specfic group in mind. I have myself in mind. I wonder if I'd have a good time seeing this. If not, there's no chance it's going to work.

In films, you have more control over the final result. In stage work, a lot depends on the specific production.

A woman from the Midwest once came up to me and said she had never liked my work. I told her she was entitled. But she said she was a convert. I asked why. She said she had read my plays.

She had seenm them before -- in regional theaters, dinner theaters, stock theaters -- and they were all played as frothy comedies, including "The Gingerbread Lady" and "The Prisoner of Second Avenue." But when she readm them, she saw what my intention was. You don't get that onstage, unless you have the best actors. In minor-league productions, they don't try to service the play, they try to sellm the play. And that's not enough.

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