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For Dan Pessano, a fond farewell to Mr. Simon

I always thought of Dan Pessano, managing director of Good Company Players and the closest thing Fresno has to a theater semi-deity, as my conduit to Neil Simon.

I never met the famed comic playwright, who died Aug. 26 at 91. Pessano did; he even got to tag along one afternoon with Simon to watch the daily footage from his movie “The Goodbye Girl.” I never studied Simon in school. Pessano did; he ended up doing his Fresno State master’s thesis on him. I never thought much about Simon in terms of a larger body of work or an analysis of why his comedy worked. Pessano did; he reveled in Simon’s mastery of various kinds of humor, often all in one work, from the lowly sight gag to the sophisticated comedy of ideas. (For satire to work, you have to be smart enough to get why the jokes are funny.)

Pictured at top: Neil Simon’s plays and movies kept Broadway and Hollywood laughing for decades. Photo: New York Times

Yes, Pessano did all those things, and his enthusiasm could be contagious. Not all the time, I grant you. Don’t get me started on “Star-Spangled Girl.” But in a larger sense, Pessano’s knowledge and expertise made me feel connected in a way to Neil Simon more and appreciate him for his place in American theater.

So it’s no surprise that when I heard of Simon’s death, I immediately thought of one of his biggest fans.

“I was hit hard by it,” Pessano says.

He’d long been a fan of Simon’s, but he was truly bitten by bug while at Fresno State, where he directed a 1972 production of “Last of the Red Hot Lovers” for his master’s project. He was teaching full-time at Clovis High School at the time and getting ready to found GCP, but he found the time to crank out a thesis titled “The Comedy of Neil Simon.” (Not quite the most alluring title, he admits, but that’s academia for you.)

As the years flew by, he programmed a lot of Simon’s works at GCP. And who can blame him? Audiences ate it up.

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“I’ve even wrote a couple of letters to him over the years thanking him on behalf of all the hinterlands for giving us material that audiences responded to and that old performers and young performers alike really take to,” he says.

Pessano got to meet the playwright three times, and the biggest thrill was “The Goodbye Girl” moment. Simon took him to the MGM Studios screening room, and they sat watching takes from scenes from the film shot in New York.

“It finishes and the lights come up. And he looks over at me and says, ‘What do you think?’ That was really a moment for me. I was smart enough to say, ‘Well, your wife is incredible.’ ”

Simon was married to Marsha Mason, who starred in the film, from 1973-83.

Dan Pessano in 1973, the year he turned in his thesis on Neil Simon.

As long as we’re talking about memories, I tell Pessano about my two big Neil Simon recollections.

One came in high school, when I played Mort in “California Suite.” (It was one of my last onstage appearances before “retiring” — I sort of figured out that I was better suited for writing about the theater rather than being in it. Let’s just say I gave myself a lukewarm review.) The vignette opens just after a mixed-doubles tennis match that Mort and his wife played against another couple, and Mort is furious. My line was supposed to be: “And they just kept lobbing the ball over your head — lob, lob, lob, the sons-of-bitches.” But it was high school, so we had to clean up the language.

I can tell you, however, that being in the show forever affected my relationship with the word “lob.” To me, it’s the funniest sounding word around. And if you march up to me and say, “lob, lob, lob,” I can’t help but smile.

The second moment came during one of the first Broadway shows I ever saw, way back in 1987: “Broadway Bound.” In this autobiographical outing, the second in Simon’s famed “Brighton Beach” trilogy, Linda Lavin was playing the mother role. She tells her son Eugene about the most glamorous incident of her life: a night at the Primrose ballroom, 35 years earlier, when George Raft asked her to Pessanoce. Lavin’s monologue enthralled me. I remember leaning forward in my box seat (I’d nabbed a last-minute ticket at the TKTS booth) and being mesmerized at how this comedy had turned so tender and heartfelt that I could cry.

Columbia/courtesy Everett Collection

Marsha Mason, screenwriter Neil Simon on set, 1981.

When I mention this, Pessano sighs in recognition. For him, the trilogy creates a mother-son relationship for the ages.

“Your mother is probably yelling at you sometimes, but there’s always a moment where you get her to dance,” he says.

Pessano learned a lot from Simon’s play about how comedy needs to be carefully constructed. (He remembers asking what Simon’s comfort zone was in terms of waiting for the first laugh of one of his plays. His response: a mere 30 seconds.) Laughs aren’t just something you throw at a wall in hopes that one or two will stick. Simon believed that comedy writing needs to have a distinct rhythm of its own. A playwright learns to build his or her laughs in a series. It’s (almost) a science.

Pessano knows that Simon didn’t have the highest of literary ambitions. For a while, he was so popular on Broadway and churning the hits out so frequently that he “didn’t have time to go out into the woods and meditate,” as Pessano puts it.

But from the early, silly stuff — the “Barefoots in the Park” and the “Come Blow Your Horns” — Simon got more complicated. Along with the trilogy, Pessano has a special affection for “Lost in Yonkers,” for which Simon won a Pulitzer Prize. The play has one of Pessano’s favorite characters: the sweet and somewhat slow Bela, who has a touching moment asking her mother to let her “have a life.”

You could say that Simon’s evolution as a playwright could be a metaphor of sorts for the way Pessano — who has a crazy-sharp sense of humor — grew into his own comic skin as the years flew by. Those who know Pessano well realize he’s more likely to blurt out a self-deprecating quip than to get a laugh at the expense of someone else.

“It’s only a quarter-inch between funny and sad,” he says. “Laughter is self-defense. I know that’s my self-defense personally, so I do identify with saying something about yourself before somebody else can.”

So to Mr. Simon, I say, thanks for all the laughs. And to Mr. Pessano, I say, thanks for making me realize how important they all were.

Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com

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