Theater Heavyweights Pay Tribute To Simon

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"It's a great dream to win the Monte Cristo Award," said playwright Neil Simon Monday night at New York's Rainbow Room atop Rockefeller Plaza, where he was receiving the tribute from the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, the Connecticut home of developing theater artists. "The fact that I never heard of it before ..." — he added with perfect timing as the crowd of high-profile theater guests roared with laughter — "is not to diminish this honor."

After all, he said, past winners have included Edward Albee, August Wilson and Jason Robards.

The 80-year-old Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer of such works as "The Odd Couple," "The Sunshine Boys," "Lost in Yonkers," "Barefoot in the Park," "Promises, Promises" and dozens of more plays, musicals and screenplays, was feted with dinner, speeches and scenes performed from his plays.

Among the performers were Lucie Arnaz (who was in Simon's musical, "They're Playing Our Song") and husband Laurence Luckinbill, who did a scene from "Chapter Two;" Jennifer Ehle was poignant in a scene from "The Good Doctor"; and Bob Dishy and Dick Latessa scored huge laughs with a scene from "The Sunshine Boys," a work Simon said he was tinkering with.

Michael Douglas (who, as a young actor in the '60s spent a summer at the Waterford theater compound) was there with his wife Catherine Zeta-Jones (looking movie-star glam in a Michael Kors outfit). They shared a table with old friends, O'Neill founder George White and his wife Betsy.

Among the 150 guests were longtime O'Neill supporter Dina Merrill, producers Emanuel Azenberg and James Nederlander Sr., casting agent Jay Binder, composer Marvin Hamlisch and actor Charles Grodin.

Also on hand were many young theater artists who had their works developed at the O'Neill: Lin-Manuel Miranda, the star, composer and lyricist of the new Broadway musical "In the Heights" (and likely Tony Award contender); that show's director Thomas Kail; Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen from the Broadway-bound "[title of show]"; playwright Adam Bock ("The Receptionist"), as well as Katie Finneran, Tony Roberts, Penny Fuller and Dennis Staroselsky, all of whom performed in Simon scenes as well.

Simon had the last word relaying his personal biography from a kid growing up in the Washington Heights section of New York City, a stint in the Army in the '40s, his start as a television writer with "Your Show of Shows," his first Broadway play in 1961 ("Come Blow Your Horn") and tributes to his first wife Joan and his present wife Elaine Joyce. He ended with the story of how he became ill several years ago and needed a kidney transplant. He brought onstage his longtime publicist, Bill Evans, who donated his kidney to Simon.

Frank Rizzo

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