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Review Round-up: Goldblum's Return in Avenue

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Jeff Goldblum has returned to the London stage to star in Terry Johnson's revival of The Prisoner of Second Avenue, the Old Vic's first West End production beyond its home on the Cut, at the Vaudeville Theatre.

Set in the 1970s, Neil Simon's 1971 play is a black comedy depicting a New York couple, Mel (Goldblum) and Edna Edison (Oscar-winner Mercedes Ruehl), enduring the trials and tribulations of city life. Mel is made redundant and the stress of an economic crisis and urban life pushes him into having a nervous breakdown. The family gathers to offer support, with Edna stoically bearing the burden of his disintegration and self-pity.

Could Goldblum emulate the midas touch that saw him receive rave reviews for Speed the Plow two years ago? The Prisoner of Second Avenue continues to 25 September 2010.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) – “Jeff Goldblum’s pairing with Mercedes Ruehl in Neil Simon’s 1971 Broadway comedy The Prisoner of Second Avenue is not so extraordinary … The play itself, despite all the zingy one-liners, is an awkward, not always convincing, study in emotional meltdown and inner city angst … Terry Johnson’s lively production can’t disguise the lumpy construction … 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. 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.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) – “For all the quality of Goldblum's performance and Terry Johnson's production, there is something too cosy about Simon's approach to his subject … Baldly summarised, the play sounds like a tragedy, but Simon, as a servant of Broadway, is determined to send us home happy … It seems absurd that Mel and Edna, with two daughters in college, should spurn the brother's offer to pay the medical bills. And Mel's transformation from mental wreck to stoic survivor seems far too easy… This production, however, is far superior to its predecessor … Thanks to Goldblum's skill and Johnson's directorial tact, Mel emerges as a man who, in being deprived of a job, acquires the weary patience of Job. Mercedes Ruehl also admirably endows the long-suffering Edna with a welcome touch of acidity … But, although the play is expertly done, Simon ultimately shies away from the logic of his story: if Mel is the woeful victim of recession, Simon is himself the prisoner of Broadway feel-good convention."

  • Dominic Cavendish in the Daily Telegraph (three stars) – “The problem with the play … is that Simon roots the universal experience of chronic insecurity in an altogether local desire to please a Broadway audience. What the evening delivers in clever one-liners, it lacks in corresponding emotional thoroughness. We can believe that Mel and Edna are where they are. We can’t so easily credit where they wind up, which is a place of cosy fortitude … Still, as a vehicle for Goldblum’s innate comic abilities this revival more than earns its keep ... It’s a joy to see this pyjama’d loon ostrich-step across the settee to crane his ears to the wall for intrusive sounds… However, an issue with the material: if only, in grappling with life’s harsh incarcerations, Simon hadn’t so readily let himself be taken hostage by soothing commercial convenience.”

  • Fiona Mountford in the Evening Standard (two stars) – “Any hopes that Spacey’s theatre would repeat the success of the Donmar Warehouse’s recent knockout year in the West End are swiftly dashed as Jeff Goldblum and Mercedes Ruehl, drag us through two effortfully unfunny hours … Bad things may keep happening and good men and women may keep losing their jobs, but the dry, flip tone of the piece mitigates against any audience sympathy … it’s all awkward timing and jagged pacing. Ruehl clomps about uneasily while Goldblum … grandstands unendingly with a series of exaggerated reactions seemingly chosen at random from a theatrical pinball machine … I convinced myself one of the characters was surely going to leap up and finally reveal the whole piteously unconvincing scenario to be some sort of elaborate charade, and that the narrative would, at long last, head off in more fruitful directions. No such luck. The joke, if there is one, is most definitely on us.”

  • Paul Callan in the Daily Express - "The lanky Jeff Goldblum, a familiar Old Vic face, brings a quaking madness to the part of a man raging at the world. He is convinced the world is against him, plotting some wild conspiracy to rob him of work, money and sanity. Goldblum uses his long arms and legs to frenzied effect. There are moments when he looks like a human windmill. Mercedes Ruehl is deliciously supportive as Edna, his loving and assertive wife who loyally strug- gles to pour the balm of her love, patience and loyalty on his stress ... But the sad problem is this is not one of Simon’s best plays and compares badly with the hilarious genius of The Odd Couple and, say, Barefoot In The Park. After a time, it is all excessively repetitive and predictable. The sight of Jeff Goldblum thundering around the stage is very funny for a time. But then it soon loses its edge with familiarity."
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