Jeff Goldblum’s brilliant duel with Kevin Spacey two years ago in David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow was a highlight in the recent annals of the Old Vic. Goldblum’s pairing with Mercedes Ruehl in Neil Simon’s 1971 Broadway comedy The Prisoner of Second Avenue - in an Old Vic production by Terry Johnson - is not so extraordinary.
Not because these two brilliant actors - Ruehl, who won an Oscar for her performance in The Fisher King, is making a long overdue London debut - do not strike sparks, but because the play itself, despite all the zingy one-liners, is an awkward, not always convincing, study in emotional meltdown and inner city angst.
The Upper East side apartment inhabited by Mel and Edna Edison is a very different place to the idealized, almost celebratory Manhattan bolt holes occupied by other Simon characters in Barefoot in the Park, say, or even The Odd Couple. This place is stuffy, noisy and unpleasant.
The state of it reflects the state of mind of 47 year-old Mel, an advertising executive who is fearing the worst at work, popping Valium and banging on the walls to complain about German air hostesses playing endless re-runs of “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on my Head.” Upstairs, more neighbours take the hint more literally and empty buckets of water over the hapless goofball.
Terry Johnson’s lively production can’t disguise the lumpy construction (the scratchily projected, unfunny television news items don’t help), nor the fact that Goldblum is not fully at home in the role. His gestural angularity seems at odds with his inner turmoil, as if he can’t bring himself to believe in his own bad luck.
Ruehl, on the other hand, manages all the transitions from ditsiness to genuine concern, funny-face stoicism to casual optimism, with consummate ease; and with her smoky, croaky voice and elegance of technique, she’s an absolute joy to watch on the stage.
The play seems to be veering off in another direction when Mel’s sisters and brother call by to offer help with the medical bills, exacerbating the situation even further; these cameos are boldly defined and well contrasted by Amanda Boxer, Patti Love, Fiona Gillies and - as the impatient businessman, Harry - Linal Haft.
It’s a good night out, not a great one, an interesting sidelight on a great comic writer who, like Alan Ayckbourn, sees the funny side of emotional distress and domestic unease.