Like a lot of us, it took Karen Paisley awhile to recognize that Neil Simon is a serious playwright.
Simon, a one-time TV comedy writer, became one of the hottest Broadway playwrights in the 1960s and ’70s with such box-office hits as “Barefoot in the Park,” “The Odd Couple,” “The Star-Spangled Girl” and “Plaza Suite,” all of which were adapted as movies, TV series or both.
The native New Yorker got rich with his penchant for memorable one-liners and his inexhaustible talent for mining Big Apple social dynamics and show-business for humor.
But along the way, he became more reflective and began producing a different kind of comedy — most notably his autobiographical trilogy, “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” “Biloxi Blues” and “Broadway Bound.”
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In 1991 he unveiled a remarkable play, “Lost in Yonkers,” a family drama shot through with honest humor, told from the viewpoint of a couple of young brothers thrust into a picturesque, dysfunctional family by their debt-laden father.
For the first time they meet their stern grandmother, a developmentally challenged aunt and an uncle who may be a gangster. The piece claimed the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for best play.
Set during World War II, “Yonkers” has the feel of autobiography, although Simon has said in interviews that it is not. And he once said that he was not trying to be particularly funny.
“‘Lost in Yonkers’ is an enormous success, but I thought I was writing the bleakest of plays,” Simon told an interviewer for the Paris Review. “What I liked about it was that I thought it was Dickensian — two young boys left in the hands of dreadful people. What I was afraid of was that I would hear words like melodrama.”
“I’m guilty, as many theater people are, of deciding that Neil Simon was just a lightweight playwright,” Paisley said.
After seeing a production of “Lost in Yonkers” years ago, she said she read several of his other plays and was impressed by his attention to character details.
“I decided maybe he’s much maligned,” she said. “Maybe in this country we don’t have as much respect for comedic playwrights.”
Paisley, the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre’s artistic director, has chosen “Yonkers” to open the MET’s 10th anniversary season. It will be the company’s 50th production. It will be the 17th MET show for actress Marilyn Lynch, who plays the grandmother, and the 20th MET production for stage manager Tony Beasley.
In addition to Lynch, the cast includes Bonnie Griffin as Aunt Bella, Scott Cox as Uncle Louie and, as the brothers, Zack and Whitaker Hoar (brothers in real life). Chris Gleeson plays the boys’ father and Brie Henderson appears as Aunt Gert.
“This is a great play,” Paisley said. “Simon is taking a serious situation and helping us find the laughter in it. But when you look at the issues he’s dealing with, there’s a reason this won the Pulitzer Prize.”