Sports yakkers Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon praised Neil Simon Monday on their ESPN show "Pardon the Interruption."
Kornheiser and Wilbon's appreciation of Simon, who died Sunday at age 91, showed a cultural fissure over the playwright's work.
Commentators in The New York Times and elsewhere said that the author of hit plays and movies like "The Odd Couple," "Barefoot in the Park," "Plaza Suite" and "The Sunshine Boys" saw his popularity wane late in his career because of a shift in American culture.
Once the author of four Broadway smashes running at the same time, Simon lost his touch at the end of his career. Even revivals of "The Odd Couple" and other earlier favorites failed on Broadway.
But Kornheiser and Wilbon's praise of Simon showed that the playwright's work remains popular among the well-off American middle class who live in suburbs and used to love going to the theater to see Simon's comedies and more serious work like "Brighton Beach Memories," "Biloxi Blues," "Broadway Bound" and "Lost in Yonkers."
Korenheiser and Wilbon cited "The Odd Couple," especially rumpled sportswriter Oscar Madison, as models for their shtick.
The former Washington Post columnists were talking about "The Odd Couple's" movie and TV versions, the latter of which didn't involve Simon. Their neglect of the play, originally starring Walter Matthau as Oscar and Art Carney as the fastidious Felix Unger, reflects the decline of Broadway as a popular medium for original plays.
TV and the movies captured the middle-class audience that once loved Broadway plays like Simon's. The cultural shift didn't occur among the public, but in the theater and on Broadway.
More experimental and counterculture "serious" plays turned off mainstream audiences, and Broadway turned to lavish musicals like "The Lion King" and, now, jukebox vehicles, revivals of warhorse musicals and plays based on movies.
While "Odd Couple" revivals have bombed on Broadway, the movie version starring Matthau and Jack Lemmon remains one of the many overworked staples of Turner Classic Movies. Oscar and Felix are enduring American archetypes.
New York magazine's Frank Rich, who held life-and-death power over Broadway in his days as The New York Times' drama critic, was among those who claimed Simon was hurt by a "cultural shift." How insular for a critic who slammed Simon's later work to point to a change in attitudes that he himself engendered.
Rich pointed out that Simon's "Barefoot in the Park" premiered on Broadway two years after Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," implying that Albee's play heralded the presumed cultural shift. Yet Albee's later work also lost critical and popular favor.
Audiences can appreciate Simon's view of marriage as well as Albee's. Audiences perceive that Albee's George and Martha started off as happy as Simon's young lovers Paul and Corie.
The late Mike Nichols directed Simon's play on Broadway, starring Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley, and the movie version of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Nichols saw the two works as equally valid depictions of marriage.
Simon's loss of critical appreciation and popular success mirrored the fate of American playwrights considered as more "serious." Along with Albee, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller suffered critical disapproval and failed productions. The tarnishing of these careers reflect the failures of American criticism more than any "cultural shift."
The same fissure between mainstream tastes and elite artistic values is shown in American film. Now, the Academy Awards have a dubious plan to begin a separate category for "popular" movies after years of Oscar winners not connecting with audiences.
Wall Street Journal theater critic Terry Teachout gave the most balanced interpretation of Simon's legacy. Unlike Times critics, Teachout frequently reviews regional theater, and understands that Simon's plays still touch mainstream audiences. In contrast to the Times, Teachout expressed optimism that Simon's plays will again find success in Broadway revivals.