They say to “write what you know.” In the case of playwright Neil Simon, this is no secret.
When I read The Dinner Party, my first thought was, “what was going on in Neil’s life when he wrote this?” The play begins how we are used to a Simon play beginning; relatable characters saying and doing humorous things. But there is something different about this play. It is not only that it takes place in Paris instead of New York City. This play takes a retrospective turn that begs my question. It shows his development as an artist from his early career through his autobiographical trilogy (Brighton Beach Memoirs (1983), Biloxi Blues (1985), and Broadway Bound (1986)) until his late career.
His Art Imitates His Life
In every text written about Simon, you will find mention of the autobiographical nature of his writing. Middle class people living in NYC placed in incongruous situations. Ordinary problems made funny with pin point dialogue. A focus on the domestic, because of his life growing up with a father who was either not home or creating conflict when he was home.
The Dinner Party comes towards the end of his career. The play is about six strangers who are invited to a dinner party. The only thing they can figure is that they are all loosely connected to the party’s host. And then the bombshell: their ex-spouses are also there! Chaos, comedy, reflection on past hurts and past bliss; it all comes crashing together.
From where would Simon pull this? He was married five times, two of those times to the same woman. Only three of those ended in divorce. His first wife, Joan Baim, passed away after 20 years of marriage, and Elaine Joyce survived him. One of our “Dinner Party” couples married and divorced twice as well. There is mention of a dead wife, but I feel not in the same spirit as reality. The Dinner Party first opened in December 1999, the same year as one of his divorces.
But it goes even deeper than that. One couple has some deep professional jealousy. Could that be drawn from Simon’s relationship with his older brother? Danny brought him into the writing world, and Neil ended up being more successful than Danny was. I am sure feelings were complicated, and I would personally like to think there was no ill will. Danny knew Neil was talented at a young age (15 according to Neil), but it must also be a struggle to have your brother be so successful with an idea that was yours (The Odd Couple). Ours is not to know that dynamic, but we can ruminate about it based on The Dinner Party’s content.
See Neil Simon’s The Dinner Party at MCT
Hopefully I have peaked your curiosity. If you love comedies like The Odd Couple and Barefoot in the Park, then this is for you. If you are more of a Biloxi Blues fan, I think you will love The Dinner Party as well. There is a reason that Simon is one of the great American playwrights; there is something for everyone.
I was excited to delve into this play’s characters as soon as I read it. I find them real, eccentric, charming, sweet, snide and, of course, funny. As with so many works by Neil Simon, these people are at the heart of the story. Will you find your “better half” in one of them?
See the show:
September 16-25, 2022
Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays at 2:00pm
Tickets are $11-$13
814-333-1773 or mct1967.square.site
NY Times Obituary
PBS American Masters