The Prisoner of Second Avenue by Neil Simon. Directed by Warner Shook.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"...food. I remember how they made it."
Edna Edison is the epitome of the wifely wife, an at-your-service type who only wants her husband to rest, be happy and healthy, and not worry so much. "Name it, Iíll do it,í is her credo. Mel Edison, her husband, is a fidgety, nervous, overly intense man who canít be calm when there are things bothering him. Those things include noise, smells, sounds, food, attitude and more attitude. This couple live in a fourteenth floor apartment on Second Avenue in the 80s in New York City in the early 1970s. Obviously Mel will never get any rest and Edna will live out her days unable to please her husband.
Around these two perfectly mismatched people, Neil Simon fashioned his 1971 hit comedy, The Prisoner of Second Avenue. The economic times are hard - sound familiar - with jobs threatened, strikes in place and robbers gaining ground in the world of less-than-obvious professions from which to choose. Mel and Edna are hit by the misfortunes that befall folks in the big city. How they deal with those unfortunate situations is at the core of this play, one of the few outright comedies playing in the Berkshires this summer.
Thankfully the play was written by Neil Simon and not by William Inge. Where Inge would be dirty and down in it, Simon is funny and humanly touching. Inge would have driven Mel into an early grave and Edna to the streets for quick cash transactions in alleyways. Simon gives Mel a nervous breakdown and paranoia while Edna becomes the uneasy breadwinner who can suffer a tantrum when needed and still come out ahead of her hapless husband. Where Inge would have been relentlessly grim, Simon is relentlessly funny. God bless Neil Simon.
In the new production at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, funny is the order of the night. From the ninth line in the first scene this play is on track with laughter. That Mel and Ednaís situation is not funny cannot be denied, but being who they are, and noting who is playing them, this couple face adversity with unique splendor.
Stephen DeRosa is Mel and his take on the character seems to be uniquely his own. He never brings to mind Jack Lemmon (the movie Mel) or Peter Falk (the first Broadway Mel, later replaced by Art Carney, Gabriel Dell and Hector Elizondo). Every energetic thrust or withdrawal is DeRosaís own. This actor takes on this character, face to face, and come out the superlative Mel, an unequaled variation on the human raceís principal antagonist. At one point in the second act, Mel intimidates his Milquetoast wife and in DeRosaís wonderful way Mel takes much more time than he should need to subjugate the woman. Each moment, each attack, each illogical bit of logic is funnier in DeRosaís take on it than I ever remember it being before.
DeRosaís Edna is played superbly by Veanne Cox. I recall seeing Lee Grant and then Barbara Barrie in the role way back when and no two women could have been more radically different than those two until Cox came on the radar screen this time around. She has struck a happy medium between the two: sweet and sincere where Grant had an edge of sarcasm, echoed in the film by Ann Bancroft, strong and resilient where Barrie seemed to fade into insecurity. She has a tendency to talk down to her husband, and Cox makes those moments elusive and fun for infecting it with that gentle emptiness or vacuousness that she affects for this role. When Edna comes into her own in Act Two, then loses it into an entirely different and new mood, she is the comic equal of her husband as Cox makes the most of this sequences. Bancroft, Phyllis Newman and Grant made their Ednas into a very New York Jewish house-frau. Cox removes her from that, even as her character shuttles home mid-day with a Lunch Casserole for her ailing husband.
In fact that characteristic Jewish sense is all but missing in the first act and the opening scene of Act Two. The play has a more universal feeling to it, I think. Then in the middle of the second act, enter Melís three sisters. There is no question left as to accent, capabilities or ethnic orientation. We are in a Jewish household.
The sisters are played by Alice Playten (the adoring one with memory lapses); she is the one who dotes on the baby that Mel once was. Denny Dillon is Jessie, the tearful but strong one. She has a generous heart but a self-protecting head. Jeanne Paulson plays Pauline, the sister who wants to be thought of as kind, but isnít kind and shows it. Their older brother, Harry, an organized sort of person, is played by Julian Gamble.
Gamble and the Girls are absolutely right for their roles. The sisters are consistently oddball and funny and brother Harry is a man for all seasons, he is ready to come up with a deal that will help Mel and ultimately not hurt himself doing it. If this were my family Iíd opt out of it, just as Mel has seemingly done, keeping them informed but usually not involved.
Laurie Churba Kohn has done a neat job with the period costumes. Itís hard to remember menís clothing, but she has brought it all back with Melís awful suit. Mary Louise Geiger adds a perfect touch with lighting in this play giving us the inside and outside lights of New York City, as they shed a cool, almost cold, glare onto the proceedings. Scott Bradleyís realistic set completely ignores audience sightlines, actually keeping one half the audience from discovering if there is a hallway in the apartment and the other half from understanding what the stage right wall looks like when it breaks.
Warner Shook has a nice understanding of the playís qualities and he makes manifest each of them through the talents of his cast. His American Gothic relationship to madness and revenge is just what Simon asked for in the script, but there is already something different from the order of the day as he moves inexorably forward toward that absurd picture that, while immediately recognizable, never felt forced or diagnosed.
Onward to the ultimate fix, a Simon comedy about life in Summer played during Summer in a season when the ultimate fix of seasonal recognition may just never come this Summer. This play may be as close as we can get, especially when the snow comes falling down.
Stephen DeRosa as Mel; photo: Lindsey Crane
Veanne Cox and Stephen DeRosa; photo: Lindsey Crane
The Prisoner of Second Avenue plays at the Berkshire Theatre Festival through August 8. The theater is located on Main Street in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, although the parking lot is accessible also from Route 7North. For information and tickets please call the box office at 413-298-5576.