In the spring of 1983, Neil Simon’s comedy "Brighton Beach Memoirs" opened on Broadway. It promised a daring new chapter in the wildly successful, relentlessly humorous playwright’s career.
This play offered audiences a fictive version of Simon himself as a young, aspiring writer named Eugene Morris Jerome, with the twentyish movie star Matthew Broderick in the role. Surrounding Eugene was a multi-generational, working-class Jewish family, which audiences had every reason to believe resembled Simon’s own.
For all the seeming kitchen-sink realism, all the indications that Simon might be heading into Arthur Miller territory, "Brighton Beach Memoirs" quailed, in the end.
Far from evoking the actual family of Simon’s childhood - one riven by poverty, dispossession, paternal desertion, and a mother’s lasting shame at her disfigurement in a fire - the clan in "Brighton Beach Memoirs" stayed together under duress and lovingly weathered any discord.
To top off the fantasy, Simon had the father’s Polish cousin and his family miraculously escaping the oncoming Nazis to head for Brooklyn at the final curtain.
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"Brighton Beach Memoirs" nonetheless ran for 1,299 performances on Broadway and captured the New York Drama Critics Circle award for best play and established Broderick as a formidable stage actor with box-office appeal. Inside, though, Neil Simon was much too perceptive to buy his own bunk. At one point in the play, he had Eugene wonder aloud, "How am I going to be a writer if I don’t know how to suffer?" In retrospect, Simon said that the Jeromes were "the family I wished I’d had, not the family I did have."
As if to answer that implicit challenge to himself, to plumb the harrowing past honestly, Simon made a legacy-defining pivot on his very next play.
"Biloxi Blues," which opened on Broadway in 1985 with Broderick again portraying Eugene, was the drama in which Neil Simon went from the preternaturally skilled jokester of such comic classics as "The Odd Couple" to the author of deeply-felt memory plays. Even though the bittersweet final play in the autobiographical "Brighton Beach" trilogy, "Broadway Bound," stands as Simon’s masterpiece, and the dark-hued "Lost in Yonkers" won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1991, it was with "Biloxi Blues" that Neil Simon became a mensch.
The subject matter for his transformation, however, did not center on the domestic cruelties of his fine later plays but rather anti-Semitism. Specifically, Simon follows Eugene into basic training in 1943, a few years before the author himself served, for an encounter with Jew-hating, American-style.
As importantly, Simon refuses to present Eugene as the victim, the object of audience sympathy. That role belongs to the other Jew in the barracks, Arnold Epstein, a wiry, intellectual, and argumentative type.
Building up the dramatic tension through a series of anti-Semitic taunts and putative jokes offered by another soldier, Wykoski, Simon finally has the tormentor plunge Epstein’s head into a latrine. As for Eugene, he abashedly tells the audience that he had hoped to stay neutral, "like Switzerland." Epstein calls him to moral account in this exchange.
Eugene: Why is it that we come from the same place but I can't understand you?
Epstein: You're a witness. You're always standing around watching what's happening, scribbling in your book what other people do. You have to get in the middle of it. You have to take sides. Make a contribution to the fight.
Eugene: What fight?
Epstein: Any fight. One you believe in. Until you do, you'll never be a writer, Eugene.
With "Biloxi Blues," Simon answered precisely that summons. As he said about his creative process for the play when I interviewed him in 1985, "I don’t know if I made the self-discoveries in writing the play, or that when I went through the time machine I remembered the self-discoveries I made then. You find things you don’t want to admit to yourself. It took me years to admit that I was a removed writer or that I had been a cowed in the face of anti-Semitism."
Simon recalled of his own army service:
"There were a few Jews among us, but it was still a minority. In a barracks of 40 people, maybe four were Jewish. I made friends with a group of five or six guys -like Eugene in 'Biloxi' - until one of them saw my dogtags.
"It had an 'H' for 'Hebrew.' I always hated that. Everyone had some letter on their dogtag for burial, but the 'H' put you at risk.
"So this guy said to me, 'You're Jewish?' I said yes. He said, 'I thought you'd look different, your nose would be different.' These guys in the army, some of them had never seen a Jew before. Or only an old, Talmudic, rabbinical Jew.
"All this time, I felt so cowardly. A war had just been fought against the Nazis and here was the same thing - prejudice - in our own army.
"There was one Jewish boy I became friendly with in the army. I remember one night we went to the movies and then went back to his bunk. He opened his footlocker and it was filled with books. And he talked about books the way you would talk about a beautiful girl. He put me onto the best books - Flaubert, Stendahl, Tolstoy - and onto foreign movies.
"But he also had Epstein's qualities. He was whiny. He wasn't athletic, didn't have a sense of humor. He was not one of the group."
The playwright paused, then went on. "The prejudice against being Jewish stayed with me a long time,'' he said. ''For years after the army - looking for houses, joining a golf club, wondering what hotels in Florida didn't want Jews. It was like 'Gentlemen's Agreement.' The worst thing was the fear of being rejected, the humiliation of not being part of the group."
The hard-earned candor of "Biloxi Blues" led Frank Rich, the drama critic of The New York Times and a frequent skeptic about Simon’s work, to call the new play his "first serious attempt to examine his conscience as a writer and a Jew."
"Biloxi Blues" won the Tony for best play, while Barry Miller took the supporting-actor Tony for his role as Epstein. Even so, "Biloxi Blues" ran for only 524 performances – a respectable number for most non-musicals on Broadway, but far less than half of what "Brighton Beach Memoirs" racked up.
In the fullness of time, now that Neil Simon has died at the age of 91, such a commercial verdict hardly matters. Nor do the financial struggles of Simon’s last plays and even a 2009 revival of "Broadway Bound," which closed before opening night.
Reputations wax and wane. Events themselves have a way of making a dated play seem bracingly current. In the America of Richard Spencer and Charlottesville, of Q-Anon and 4Chan and a president who gleefully stokes the furies, the Neil Simon of "Biloxi Blues" feels as current as a tweet.
Samuel G. Freedman is the author of eight books, including Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry. Twitter: @SamuelGFreedman