Good things come to those who wait through The Prisoner of Second Avenue

Mar 5, 2008 at 4:00 am
Neil Simon still packs 'em in. A veritable mob scene ensued on opening night of the West End Players Guild staging of The Prisoner of Second Avenue. Extra chairs had to be brought in to accommodate the eager crowd. The air was alive with expectation. Because this is one of Simon's less-seen plays, there was the hope that a gem might be rediscovered.

Prisoner is a curiosity in the canon of the most commercially successful playwright in world history. Produced in 1971, it falls into the second phase of Simon's career. After the early smash-hit comedies like Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple, he sought to embroider his humor with a degree of seriousness. Prisoner followed The Gingerbread Lady; these are the only two plays that Simon labeled as comedy-dramas. Although The Gingerbread Lady failed to find a wide audience, Prisoner ran for nearly 800 performances. Not bad for a script that chronicles a nervous breakdown.

The world — or at least New York City — is crashing down on the frail shoulders of the misbegotten Mel Edison (John Reidy). His job, which he has held for 22 years, is suddenly in jeopardy; his high-rise co-op is beginning to resemble a slum. Mel is on a one-way trajectory to irrelevancy, and there's nothing that his faithful, even adoring, wife Edna (Liz Hopefl) can do to cushion his fall. (Mel doesn't like cushions; they're out to aggravate him too.)

Thirty-eight years ago, in the mouths of Peter Falk and Lee Grant, the relentless haranguing between Mel and Edna apparently made for amusing palaver. But today Mel comes across like Johnny One-Note. A little kvetching goes a long way. Simon always cringes when critics accuse him of writing one-liners rather than developing characters. But what works best between Mel and Edna is the give-and-take of undisguised jokes. (Mel, after the apartment has been burgled: "They took the television? A brand-new color television?" Edna: "They're not looking for 1948 Philcos.") Hopefl strives to instill Edna with the reactive impotence of a devoted wife. But there's little time to develop characters when the repartee is being delivered this quickly (one assumes with the approval of director Fay McKenna). Nor did it help that on opening night there were an inordinate number of blown lines. Granted, there's a lot to learn here: The first two-thirds of the evening is all Mel and Edna. But a repeated jumping of lines usually suggests that the actor isn't listening.

By Act Two the constant banter assumes the aura (and has all the sensitivity) of an extended sketch between Honeymooners Ralph and Alice Kramden. When he wrote Prisoner, Simon might have thought he was maturing as a playwright; to the contrary, it could be argued that he was reverting to his roots as a television sketch writer for Sid Caesar.

Then midway through Act Two the play takes a sharp right turn and careens into unabashed comedy. Mel's breakdown has occurred, and his three sisters and brother arrive to negotiate his future. Suddenly we are reminded of what Simon does best. These three sisters are as stereotypical as you can get, but they are a hoot. Dorothy Farmer Davis, Eleanor Mullin — and especially Suzanne Greenwald, who is to laughter as an orange squeezer is to fresh juice — stand the play on its head and shake the humor out of it. They are neatly abetted by David Gibbs, who as the older brother is an enviable straight man.

So the evening is a mixed bag. Better for West End to have staged The Prisoner of Second Avenue than yet another Odd Couple. And if they're going to stage lesser Simon, better this than The Star-Spangled Girl. A lost gem it is not, but those few moments of undiluted hilarity in Act Two are pure gold.