Following a particularly lackluster but realistic scene from The Miracle Worker in which my scene partner accidentally doused me with a large cup of water, Earl suggested I take a break from Anne Sullivan. “Go to the library and look through the plays of Neil Simon. See if you can get your hands on a copy of The Gingerbread Lady.” Mopping up the water from the main stage, I crossed the lobby, my suede clogs leaving small circles of moisture on the red carpet. Beyond the heavy doors of the performing arts building, sun and clouds upstaged each other above Lake Cayuga. Autumn arrived early in upstate New York, prompting September to feel more like late October. Earl’s recommended title had me conjuring over-sized molasses cookies, heavy with ginger, spiked with cloves, outfitted in royal icing. My hunger propelled me towards the student union where I picked up a small bag of peanut M&Ms for sustenance.
Climbing the stairs to the library's theatre section, I found Simon was well represented in the stacks. Single plays published by Samuel French were wedged alongside compendiums encompassing entire Broadway seasons. The worn covers of the paperback plays echoed with voices of scene study and wistful auditions.
The Gingerbread Lady made it abundantly clear within the first few pages of dialogue that it was a darkly serious drama, a far departure from Simon’s trademark comedies. I wasn’t the only one surprised by this Debby Downer of a script. Audiences and critics were lukewarm about the play, ultimately gaining notoriety for running five short months on Broadway. Maureen Stapleton’s performance as Evy, a has-been cabaret singer fighting the demons of alcohol, garnered her a 1971 Tony award and a prestigious Drama Desk award. My performance in Earl’s scene study class received enthusiastic reviews but not a single award, sending me back to my dorm room empty handed.
Years later, I would spot Neil Simon in New York City’s theatre district, sometimes cutting through Shubert Alley, sometimes having lunch at the now-defunct “Polish Tearoom” in the Edison Hotel. I remember walking past his table, the prolific playwright hunched over a cavernous bowl of soup, an assortment of pickles edged out of reach by a notebook. I recall seeing him standing at the rear of the orchestra, scribbling notes during an early performance of They’re Playing Our Song and again at a performance of Brighton Beach Memoirs. I always expected him to be slightly larger than life because that was how I imagined him.
Last evening, at 6:45 pm, Broadway dimmed its lights in memory of Neil Simon who passed away on August 26th at the age of 91. Simon’s passing is bittersweet for many of us who studied his words and his characters, marking the end of a chapter that spanned our college careers and decades of Broadway theatre going. There was something comfortably predictable about the patter of a Neil Simon play, the buoyancy of his dialogue, the way the words rolled off the stage covering the audience in a blanket of humor and heartbreak.
As we head into the last weekend of August, my inbox is bombarded with no-bake-dog-days-of-summer recipe suggestions. Among them are multitudes of pies boasting cracker crumb crusts. As a nod to a very old way to line a pie plate, and in memory of Neil Simon, it seems only fitting to offer a snippet of dialogue from his play, The Sunshine Boys:
“You like a cracker?
What kind of cracker?
Graham, chocolate, cocoanut, whatever you want.
Maybe just a plain cracker.
I don't have plain crackers. I got graham, chocolate and cocoanut.
Alright, a graham cracker.
They're in the kitchen, in the closet.