Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2009
“Perhaps the secret to Simon's success is his ability…to show us -- between, in, and around the funny lines -- the pain, aspiration, and sheer panic behind all those unforgettable characters.”
– from the Kennedy Center Honors Biography of Neil Simon
Batten down the hatches and fasten your seatbelts, its going to be a bumpy ride!
At the BTF, thanks to playwright Neil Simon’s comic skills, Warner Shook’s masterful direction and Stephen DeRosa and Veanne Cox’s bravura performances as Mel and Edna Edison, The Prisoner of Second Avenue is a bumpy ride well worth taking.
Vintage Neil Simon. No one does ‘em anymore, and they are wonderful, solid plays. The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1971) is the eleventh of Simon’s 33 plays (and he ain’t done yet!) but for now consider it exactly a third of the way through his canon. It opened five years after he achieved the remarkable feat of having four successful shows running simultaneously on Broadway, twelve years before he had a Broadway theatre named after him, and 20 years before he won his Pulitzer for Lost in Yonkers. At the time he wrote it he was still married to his first wife, the mother of his two daughters, who tragically died of cancer two years later.
I give you this background so that you can see the Neil Simon in Mel, and the love letter to Joan Baim Simon in Edna. Like Joan and Neil, the Edisons are Manhattanites with two almost-grown daughters. Simon was in his early 40’s, Mel is 46 and definitely having a major mid-life crisis which mirrors and is exacerbated by the depressing decline of New York City in the 1970s. In The Prisoner of Second Avenue Simon is examining the terrors of realizing your life is undoubtedly half over and the joys of a long marriage to a loving and supportive spouse, while raging at what has become of his hometown.
1971, Manhattan, Second Avenue and 88th Street. I was there. Well, almost. I grew up in the east eighties and I was 14 in 1971. While the city as a whole as going to the dogs, Yorkville or Germantown as the neighborhood of the east eighties is known, was not quite the hell-hole Simon makes it out to be. It was still largely an ethnic enclave – English wasn’t spoken in many of the shops on eighty-sixth street, the main commercial thoroughfare – but the ticky-tacky high-rises in which Mel and Edna find themselves imprisoned were springing up, replacing the turn-of-the-20th-century brownstones, and gentrification (later yuppification) was well underway.
Mel and Edna have been sold on the American dream of “movin’ on up to the East Side, to a deluxe apartment in the sky." To quote Simon’s stage directions: “What they thought they were getting were all the modern luxuries and comforts of the smart, chic East Side. What they got is paper-thin walls and a view of five taller buildings from their terrace.” They have lived long enough – six years to be exact – in apartment 14-A of 385 East 88th Street to be thoroughly disillusioned.
In 1971 the unrest of the late 1960’s is still gripping the country and the city. Crime is up, protests and strikes are rampant, and the city is getting progressively more filthy and dangerous. There is a recession on and Mel Edison suddenly finds himself unemployed, but that is not until Act I, scene ii. In the first scene Simon clearly spells out Mel’s mid-life malaise and his sense of imprisonment in his own home.
Peter Falk originated the role of Mel on Broadway, and you can almost hear his rambling cadences in Mel’s lines. Falk is one-of-a-kind, and in the film version the role went to the brilliant but more predictable Jack Lemmon. Here Mel is played with manic inspiration and energy by DeRosa. He embodies the Kennedy Center Honors quotation about Simon’s work that opens this review – he finds those levels of genius in the writing and brings them vividly to life.
The Prisoner of Second Avenue, while howlingly funny, is a dark play which does not have a happy ending. The glue that holds the chaos together is Edna, a remarkably wise and understanding woman who puts up with an awful lot from her husband and the world before finally cracking when discovering that she cannot have the nice, long, hot bath she so richly deserves. No one could possibly be as saintly as Cox’s Edna, and I kept hearing a harsher, more New York tone in her lines that Shook and Cox obviously chose not to explore. This is wise in one way since to go that route would make her more of an ethnic stereotype, but it also renders her impossibly good and patient.
At age 14 I wrote and directed my first play and I adored Neil Simon. I wanted to BE Neil Simon. I wanted to write wonderful, funny plays like that. I read all his works, watched the film versions of the older ones on the Million Dollar Movie, and I begged my parents for tickets to every new play of his that opened on Broadway. Yet listening carefully to The Prisoner of Second Avenue I was struck by how very misogynist it is. Yes, Edna is an homage to Simon’s beloved wife, but she is also very subservient to Mel and accepts her role as the lesser of the partners in the marriage unquestioningly.
Then late in the play we meet Mel’s four siblings – his sisters Pearl (Alice Playten), Pauline (Jeanne Paulsen), Jessie (Denny Dillon), and his brother Harry (Julian Gamble). While Playten, Paulsen, and Dillon are wonderful comic actresses, Simon has written them as brainless, stereotypical ninnies. It was almost depressing to watch such fine actresses mouth such sexist drivel.
Of course they all kow-tow to Harry, the eldest, and dote on Mel, the baby. Simon introduces a huge chunk of family back-story late in the play – the siblings are not mentioned at all in the earlier scenes – and I felt it rather bogged down the real story which was clearly Edna and Mel’s. Also, while the BTF scored a real casting coup here, this assemblage of actors do NOT look like a family.
As I exited the theatre a couple walking beside me assessed this as an excellent production, which it certainly is, of a mediocre play. There they are wrong, but I understood what they were saying. The Prisoner of Second Avenue is a comedy of its period written meticulously by the master, of that period, of writing comedies, of that period. What that couple were reacting to was the datedness of the structure of the play, not the play itself.
What actually surprised me was the timeliness of The Prisoner of Second Avenue The country is once again in a recession and unemployment is at an all-time high. Mel’s raving lines about a nameless conspiracy to destroy the middle class seem positively lucid in nearly forty-years hindsight, and we can now almost name the conspirators. The sense that it is every household for itself is once again prevalent. Shook’s final tableaux, in which we see Mel and Edna and their trusty snow shovel poised to take on the enemy is one we can all relate to.
The Prisoner of Second Avenue runs through August 8 on the Main Stage at the Berkshire Theatre Festival (413-298-5536) between Rts. 7 & 102 in Stockbridge. The show tuns two hours and fifteen minutes with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2009