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Strong Seasons at Jorgensen and Autorino; Neil Simon And Vivian Matalon, R.I.P.

Neil Simon, R.I.P.

Neil Simon died Aug. 26 at 91. Neither Long Wharf, Hartford Stage nor Yale Rep has ever staged one of his plays, but where would Connecticut’s small theaters and community theaters be without Simon’s dozens of surefire comedies, from “The Odd Couple” to “Rumors”?

Coming on strong during the waning days of summer stock, Neil Simon became the most produced playwright at the old Westport Country Playhouse. Each distinct phase of the Ivoryton Playhouse — when it was still an all-star summer stock house in the ‘60s and ‘70s, then as the home of the River Rep company in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and now as a self-producing year-round theater — has featured Neil Simon shows.

In 2008, Simon received the Monte Cristo Award from the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford.

From early in his career, Simon’s favorite theater to try out his plays pre-Broadway was the Shubert in New Haven. “Barefoot in the Park,” “The Star Spangled Girl,” “Plaza Suite,” “Last of the Red Hot Lovers,” “The Gingerbread Lady,” “The Prisoner of Second Avenue,” “The Sunshine Boys,” “The Good Doctor,” “God’s Favorite” and “Proposals” all played the Shubert prior to New York.

In his memoir “Rewrites,” Simon writes about how New Haven tryouts of “The Gingerbread Lady” led him to remove an obscene word from the script: “Although not far from New York, this was still staid New England, the site of Yale University, and not that far from Boston, where the words ‘goddamn’ and “Christ’ were still frowned upon, and erased on demand, by the city fathers.” In the same book, he writes about completely overhauling the troubled ending of “The Prisoner of Second Avenue” after brainstorming all night with director Mike Nichols in a New Haven hotel. In his follow-up memoir “The Play Goes On,” Simon mentions “honeymooning” in the city with Marsha Mason, his second wife; she was acting in his play “The Good Doctor,” and the New Haven previews happened shortly after their whirlwind engagement and marriage.

I met Neil Simon during the Shubert tryout for “Proposals” (his 30th play) in 1997. The show — one of the playwright’s more Chekhovian romantic comedies — had arranged an extensive pre-Broadway tour. It had elaborate sets including a turntable stage, and seemed beyond the point where many changes to the script could be made without affecting the design, blocking and other elements. Yet in New Haven Simon was dutifully doing daily rewrites to his script, and the cast was rehearsing that new material right on the Shubert stage. That was the mark of a true craftsman, honing lines until they were perfect.

I spent Aug. 26 rewatching some of my favorite Neil Simon films: the Peter Sellers crime comedy “After the Fox,” Frank Sinatra in “Come Blow Your Horn” and the made-for-TV adaptation of Simon’s play about his own adventures writing for television, “Laughter on the 23rd Floor.” More binges are in store, and here’s to all those tireless small theaters who keep Neil Simon’s work alive every season.

USJ Autorino’s Soul Season

The Autorino Center for the Arts at the University of St. Joseph has announced its 2018-19 season, which bears the blanket title “USJ Got Soul.” As you might surmise, the season mostly involves music concerts (“Guitar Under the Stars” Sept. 8, The Como Mamas Jan. 20 and the Afro-Cuban All Stars April 17, to name a few), but for the theatrically inclined there’s Alex Alpharaoh’s acclaimed one-man show about current immigration issues, “Wet: A DACAmented Journey,” Oct. 26 and 27. There’s also a spoken word event March 29: “The Mercy Suite,” in which Pulitzer-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa is accompanied by the innovative guitarist Tomás Doncker.

Details at 860-231-5555, autorino.usj.edu.

Jorgensen’s 2018-19 Schedule

UConn’s Jorgensen Auditorium in Storrs has numerous theater, comedy and dance events on its recently announced 2018-19 schedule: Compania Flamenca Eduardo Guerrero Oct. 3, improv comedy duo Colin Mochrie and Brad Sherwood Oct. 6; Aquila Theatre’s “Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus” Oct. 16; dancer/choreographer Jonah Bokaer Oct. 19; Broadway diva Kristin Chenoweth Oct. 20; opera diva Kathleen Battle (with her concert “Underground Railroad: A Spiritual Journey”) Oct. 26; the Day of the Dead event “Sugar Skull!” Oct. 28; the “dragapella” ensemble The Kinsey Sicks Oct. 30; the holographic entertainment “Callas in Concert” Nov. 7; choreographer Camille A. Brown & Dancers’ African diaspora-themed “Ink” Nov. 14; the internationally renowned Connecticut-based movement troupe Momix Feb. 6; the Israeli performance troupe Mayumana’s show “BE” March 8; Sylvia Milo’s one-woman show “The Other Mozart” (about Wolfgang Amadeus’ sister) March 14; the kid’s show “Colors” by Compagnia TPO March 16 and “Swan Lake” performed by Russian National Ballet March 28. Plus loads of music concerts, among them The Hot Sardines (Sept. 22), Gladys Knight (Feb. 16) and Chick Corea with Béla Fleck (April 25).

Details at 860-486-4226, jorgensen.uconn.edu.

New From New Neighborhood

It’s been a while since we alerted you to any of the myriad activities of New Neighborhood. The theater-collective-with-TV-affiliations was founded a few years ago by a bunch of Yale School of Drama grads as a result of the good times they had creating “These Paper Bullets!” at the Yale Rep in 2014.

New Neighborhood is currently staging two shows in Nantucket, Mass.: “Evanston Salt Costs Climbing” by Will Arbery at the White Heron Theatre Aug. 30 through Sept. 15, and “Feast: Every Year I Grow Again,” an “interactive dining experience” created by the multidisciplinary, multisensory ensemble Listen&Breathe, Sept. 5-8 at the Nantucket Culinary Center. Details at newneighborhood.net.

Two New Neighborhood members are involved with Hartford Stage’s season-opening production of Bess Wohl’s “Make Believe.” Jackson Gay is directing, and Brad Heberlee is one of the adults in a cast evenly divided between grown-ups and children.

Vivian Matalon, R.I.P.

Vivian Matalon died Aug. 15. The versatile theater director’s early work was in his native England. He worked with Noël Coward on “Suite in Three Keys,” consisting of three one-act plays, in 1966. That association made Matalon’s 1994 Hartford Stage production of Coward’s “Present Laughter” that much more special.

One of the one-acts in “Suite in Three Keys: A Song at Twilight,” has had remarkable staying power; it was done by Hartford Stage in 2014 (directed by Mark Lamos) and by the Long Wharf Theatre in 1996 (directed by Arvin Brown).

Matalon also directed the Paul Osborn comedy “Oliver Oliver” at the Long Wharf in 1984, not long after staging a Tony-winning New York revival of Osborn’s best-known play “Morning’s at Seven.”

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