Like Alan Ayckbourn, Neil Simon’s reputation has been built on a solid foundation of enduring comedies only a handful of which have successfully crossed the Atlantic.
For Americans, Ayckbourn’s humour is too British, and for the Brits Simon’s witty one-liners are too American. Also, what both writers have in common is that after initially establishing themselves with plays that made no concession to profundity, they set out, with varying degrees of success, to blend laughter with domestic angst as their comic horizons widened to take in some of the graver aspects of the human condition.
Simon’s The Prisoner of Second Avenue, produced in 1971 was the first of his plays with a serious undercurrent at its heart. It’s about the day to day travails of 47 year-old Mel Edison (Jeff Goldblum) and his wife Edna (Mercedes Ruehl) as they attempt to fend off the frustrations imposed on them simply by being middle-class New Yorkers, living in a middle-class part of Manhattan, in a middle-class apartment Mel describes as ‘an egg box that leaks.’
The paper-thin walls are cracked, the air-conditioner doesn’t work, the window in their bedroom doesn’t open and the toilet won’t stop flushing unless it’s jiggled. Noise is also a problem. At 2.30 in the morning, ‘there’s one car driving round in Jackson Heights and we can hear it,’ Mel complains, not to mention the noise of the subway, barking dogs and inconsiderately loud neighbours. On top of that, it’s sweltering hot, the garbage stinks – and we’re still only in the first scene!
In scene two, their apartment is burgled and Mel announces that he and a handful of his colleagues at work have been fired.
Inevitably, as this Job-like scenario continues to unfurl, Mel suffers a mini breakdown necessitating Edna finding an office job herself. But even that doesn’t last and, after a visit from his four siblings, who tentatively offer to help the couple financially, the play ends with Mel surfacing from his breakdown and Edna heading towards one of her own.
Though some of Simon’s plays have a dated quality to them, the financial crisis we’re currently in the midst of makes a revival of Prisoner fortuitous. And because there’s no feel-good, happy-ever-after ending, there’s an edge to the piece absent from most mainstream Simon.
The structure, however, isn’t all that satisfactory. The Edison’s two collegegoing daughters are barely mentioned so that what should really have been a two-hander is compromised by the unnecessary appearance of his brothers and sisters in a scene that contributes little, if anything, to the play other than adding four additional salaries to the paylist.
As Mel, Jeff Goldblum, terrific in the recent revival of David Mamet’s Speed the Plow, gives the role a pretty good shot, but is basically miscast. His trademark physical shtick is predictably engaging but its very effectiveness draws attention away from the pain engendered by the character’s mid-life crisis. What we’re looking at is a funny performance from a delightfully quirky actor rather than an honest portrait of a man in deep despair.
Mercedes Ruehl, on the other hand, is always believable as the long-suffering Edna, which makes her own mini-crisis all the more affecting.
Totally believable too is Lionel Haft as Mel’s older brother Harry. Believable but unnecessary. Terry Johnson directs with his usual flair for comedy, and Rob Howell’s set is spot-on.
CLIVE HIRSCHHORN. Courtesy of This Is London.