Theatre review: The Prisoner of Second Avenue

Posted on: 22 July 2010 by Mark O'haire

A bittersweet, topical comedy about a man at breaking point is how you could describe Tony and Pulitzer prize-winning writer Neil Simon’s 1971 play The Prisoner of Second Avenue.

Mel Edison is a middle-aged advertising executive on the verge of a breakdown. Living in a 14th floor apartment on New York’s Upper East Side, he rages at the noisy neighbours and the clanging garbage cans - “fourteen storeys up and you can smell the garbage from here” he complains-and the endless racket of a city which never sleeps. Furthermore his job is hanging by a thread-“I can ask for two weeks off, what I’m afraid of is they’ll ask me to take the other 50 days off!” and there are gangs of burglars on the prowl. As things go from bad to worse, Mel heads for a meltdown and his loyal, long-suffering wife Edna is left to pick up the pieces.

The best comedy comes from life’s misfortunes and our ability to laugh at pain and disaster and this is indeed the case with Neil Simon’s 39-years-old comedy which is frequently hilarious but has a dark undertow and is a work which seems particularly pertinent in our present financially stressed times. Admittedly the play palls a little at the start of the second half but Simon’s cherishable one liner- “I don’t need analysts, I need lost and found!”, “Everyone’s afraid if they are not at work on time, they’ll sell your desk!” and “I hit it off in the park with a 73-year-old British nanny bu the baby didn’t like me!”(Mel) seem just as witty as when they were first written. At times the play draws comparisons with the work of Woody Allen but whereas his highly praised film Manhattan was said to be ‘a love letter to New York’, Simon’s insightful play could be regarded as ‘letter of hate’ to that city.

Jeff Goldblum as the tall, bespectacled, stressed-out Mel negotiates the transition from mental wreck to stoic survivor with complete credibility, while Mercedes Ruehl perfectly complements him as his wife Edna, who tries to keep him on track and assumes the burden of coping with the daily hell of a city on the edge of crisis.

By Laurence Green

Where: Vaudeville Theatre

When: Plays until 11 September 2010

Box Office: 0844 412 4663

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