The Prisoner of Second Avenue at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket
Anyone who's had any experience of urban living will be able to empathise with Mel and Edna Edison, the middle-aged New York couple in Neil Simon s The Prisoner of Second Avenue. Though the play was written in 1971, the city-living complaints of too little space, too little privacy and too little common decency for far too much money are still relevant.
So there's more than a passing nod of recognition when the play opens with an insomniac Mel (Richard Dreyfuss), ranting about the noise of the traffic and the late-night neighbours, offended by the high-rise apartment's faulty air-conditioning and the toilet that only flushes when you jiggle it, and questioning the need to live this way, in “an eggbox that leaks”. Every little thing, it seems, is going wrong - “even the cactus is dying”.
Unfortunately, everything in the play goes wrong from there, too. Though the opening is funny, with Dreyfuss frenzy and Simon's barrage of you-will-laugh-dammit puns, the humour dwindles scene by scene. Mel's bad night turns into a bad week, bad month, bad year. He's made redundant, his apartment is burgled and then, the final straw, his wife - god forbid - goes out and gets a job to support them. Mel decides this is all part of an elaborate plot, perpetrated by the entire human race. Cue the nervous breakdown. Next thing you know, Mel is sedated and seeing a psychiatrist and Edna (Marsha Mason) is pleading with his brother and sisters to finance Mel's dream of founding a kids summer camp.
We d like to care about what happens to Mel, but aren't given much chance to. Simon's script seems more concerned with putting this character through his paces than injecting any of the poignancy that makes some of his other work, such as Brighton Beach Memoirs and The Goodbye Girl (the 1977 film vehicle that first paired Dreyfuss and Mason), so memorable. Why exactly does Mel lose it? Why does he miraculously cover (just as his wife is unraveling)? Why was he the family favourite as a child? Why is this relevant? And why introduce the family at all? The brief appearance of Mel's stingy siblings in Act II offsets the balance of what is essentially a two-hander with scant pay-off. These characters, as well as Mason's weary Edna, are given so little flesh that it might be more accurate to call this a solo show.
So thank heavens for Richard Dreyfuss. He looks a far sight older than his character's 47 years, wallows too long in his outrage and is let down, as we all are, by Simon's script, but he turns in an energetic performance. And it is exciting to see a film star of his calibre in the flesh - if only to applaud his cheeky curtain call.
But the following reader disagreed with the above review....
Your very negative review of The Prisoner of Second Avenue is obviously self-serving and does not represent the reactions of people who have seen the play.
According to you, when I saw the play last week while on vacation in London, I must have been in the company of hundreds of idiots who are easily amused by poor writing and acting, as the totally packed house was laughing their collective arses off throughout the play!!
I am quite familiar with the work of Neil Simon, Richard Dreyfuss and Marsha Mason, but I guess you're still trying to make your name. What was it again?
I really don't have time to answer your stupid questions about why events happen in the play, or even to point out the errors in your text. It would seem that you just need a few years of study and exposure to good work. Hurry!