Theatre yesterday and today



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Once upon a time, there was a type of Broadway comedy that commonly offered popular entertainment of the first order. These plays went for big laughs by upending the assembly-line, cookie-cutter, so-called normal complacency of middle to upper class homes. Though farce was the main form of comedy prior to World War II, after the 1940s, with servicemen returning home and adjusting to their new lives, a different wave of theatre prospered and flourished on Broadway, many set in proper living rooms for all of their three acts; shows with titles like like Time Out for Ginger, A Hole in the Head and The Marriage-Go-Round

Then in 1961, a TV writer branched out with a Broadway play all his own. Prior, he had only written collaboratively in the employ of the comedian Sid Caesar on his two landmark TV series Your Show of Shows and Caesar's World. But with his mildly auto-biographical Come Blow Your Horn, Neil Simon quickly became the master playwright of this genre, wildly popular with suburban audiences and tourists. For his second Broadway comedy, he teamed with a then comedian-turned-director named Mike Nichols, which marked the beginning of an insanely successful four-show partnership. 1963's Barefoot in the Park was a smash hit, followed immediately by The Odd Couple (1964), Plaza Suite (1968) and The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1972). Over this nine-year period, Nichols won four Tonys for directing these plays, but Simon lost out to more "significant" dramas every season (and how many productions of John Osbourne's Luther have there been since 1964 compared with The Odd Couple?). Simon would finally win a Tony for Best Play twenty-two years after his first with Brighton Beach Memoirs, a more serious-minded play, but one with plenty of laughs to which his audiences had grown accustomed. His Tony notwithstanding, laugh-out-loud comedies like the ones Simons once wrote, are still to this day considered bastard relations to drama in terms of award-worthiness.

Neil Simon and Mike Nichols the morning after Barefoot in the Park opened

at the Biltmore Theatre in 1963. It ran for 1,530 performances.

And as it turns out, Brighton Beach Memoirs was the last straight play to run more than 1,200 performances (three years), closing in 1986. It didn’t achieve the high water mark of Albert Innaurato’s Gemini, which clocked in at 1,819 performances before exiting five years earlier (the equivalent of more than four years). Since these two shows left the theatre district more than thirty years ago, no other play has gone past the three-year mark on Broadway.

It wasn’t just that comedies were replaced in the hearts and wallets of their audiences, but by the genuine progress sitcoms had begun as far back as the beginning of the 1970s with All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, et. al.; TV shows that amounted to sometimes beautifully constructed thirty-minute plays that allowed audiences to stay home in the comfort of their living rooms for quality entertainment equally as good, if not better, than what as on Broadway — and for free!

For the purposes of this column, and because it opened on this date fifty-five years ago in 1962, this is the tale of one of those plays called Never Too Late. Written by Sumner Arthur Long, it’s about the hilarity that ensues when a married man in his fifties learns he's becoming a father again.

That's it. That's the whole thing. And it ran for three years.

A rehearsal photo from 1962 with Never Too Late's George Abbott

giving some "direction" to the play's star Maureen O'Sullivan.

It's a staged photo (of course), somewhat given away by Orson Bean

staring straight at the camera while Paul Ford attempts to be involved.

It was so popular it spawned a film version in 1965. It is really creaky, but as compensation, it does offer the chance to watch its two leading actors in a repeat of their stage roles: the one-of-a-kind comedian Paul Ford, and the always fresh and lovely Maureen O'Sullivan (once Jane opposite Tommy Weissmuller in the first talking Tarzan films, as well as mother to Mia Farrow). As but one example of how funny Paul Ford could be, just look at this photo from the Broadway version of Never Too Late, and see if it doesn't make you laugh all on its own: