Russ Hunt's Reviews

The Prisoner of Second Avenue
by Neil Simon

Theatre New Brunswick
January 2001

The Prisoner of Second Avenue is a play which sounds rather like Death of a Salesman as it might have been written by Henny Youngman, or perhaps Steve Martin. The central issues are similar: both involve loss of self-respect and confidence and even identity in the face of the aggressive, dehumanizing alienation of modern commercial society, versus desperate attempts to erect piles of sandbags, full of traditional family virtues like love and loyalty, in the face of a tidal wave of urban anomie and impersonality. Unlike Willy Loman, however, Neil Simon's Mel Edison goes down with all guns blazing, firing off rants, harangues, and one-liners in all directions, more than occasionally landing one on his long-suffering wife, Edna. ("Why do you keep these ugly little pillows on here? You spend eight hundred dollars for chairs and then you can't sit on it because you got ugly little pillows shoved up your back.")

Much has been made, in recent revivals of this 1970 script, of the fact that the world which is so hard on the Edisons is not all that different from the world inhabited by the upward-striving junior executives and their families in the late nineties and the early oughts. And indeed, many of the corporate downsizing strategies we've been hearing about in the last decade or so are nothing even remotely new. "They called us into the office one at a time," Mel says. "They said they had no choice. They had to make cuts right down the line."

The same point can be made, of course, about the world Willy Loman suffered in over a half century ago. "I put thirty-four years into this firm," he says, "and now I can't pay my insurance! You can't eat the orange and throw the peel away -- a man is not a piece of fruit!" Mel responds to Edna's suggestion that they could go away, "I'm not through with my life yet . . . I still have value, I still have worth."

There are differences, though, besides Simon's jokes. Unlike Linda Loman, Edna Edison can do more than loyally insist that "Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person." She does that, but she also goes out and gets a job, leaving her husband home contemplating his vulnerability, fuming at the neighbours, and fantasizing about revenge against the world that's so wronged him -- or at the very least against the neighbours who have humiliated him by dumping a bucket of water over him from the floor upstairs.

As Mel descends into paranoid delusions, Simon uses two strategies to keep the audience's sympathy. One is Mel's vitriolic and funny ranting -- "Miracles don't happen when you're forty-seven. When Moses saw the burning bush, he must have been twenty-three, twenty-four, the most. Never forty-seven." If someone understands his situation this well, and is in general so incisive and articulate in conveying it, we think, he must be okay, even if there's nothing much pleasant about him.

The other is the fact that Edna does have our sympathy, from the beginning, and she continues to support and to love the increasingly insupportable and unlovable Mel. Balancing these sympathies (if we feel for Edna, how do we react when Mel is completely oblivious of her love and support?) is perhaps the most central challenge any production of the play faces.

Given all these challenges, I was eager to see what TNB might do with the play. They began by assembling some fine actors -- I've been impressed before by Brian McKay (most recently in The Drawer Boy, but his turn in David Hare's Skylight was impressive as well) and C. David Johnson (Misery). Nora Sheehan, whose work I did not know, is a strong, compassionate, and believable Edna, who does manage to retain both our sympathy and our respect in a difficult balancing act. McKay's Mel is a larger, stronger, more prepossessing Mel than I had imagined -- in fact, when I first heard who was in the cast, I assumed that Johnson would be playing Mel. McKay's stage presence makes it more difficult for him to enlist our sympathy: if we see Mel as a victim in the Woody Allen mold, it's easier to see his rants as born of helplessness and desperation, but McKay seems stronger, more threatening, more potentially dangerous. This makes it more difficult for him to keep our sympathy.

Director David Sherren chooses to have McKay and Sheehan play the relationship, finally, as a love story, working hard to overcome the fact that Mel's lines make it almost impossible to like, or sympathize, with his self-pity, and that Edna is perhaps just too devoted and noble a wife to be believable. "Do you want me to quit, Mel? Do you want me to leave the job? I'll leave the minute you say so, you know I will." McKay plays down the violence Simon builds into Mel's character, and Sheehan plays up the residual strength and independence in Edna, and in the end the balance remains believable.

Technically, too, TNB responded to the opportunities in Simon's script: they built Jamie Atkinson's fine, convincing, realistic (though perhaps just slightly too attractive) set, Vera Coy costumed everyone wonderfully, David Sherren blocked the play thoughtfully, and all of them honed the timing to get as many of the laughs as possible.

At the end of the evening, though, I was dissatisfied. The most serious problem with the script, and the one that TNB doesn't, finally, address at all, is that Simon's play is indistinguishable from a television situation comedy. Except, perhaps, for the slight exaggeration of the mock-newscasts which bridge the scenes, nothing about the play couldn't be a television show "filmed before a live audience." In fact, as I watched the production I occasionally thought I should look for the cameras or the "APPLAUSE" signs.

It isn't, I think, trivial that it's an extraordinarily awkward play to stage, because there are four actors who don't appear at all until the second scene of Act II -- and three of them don't return for the last scene. Nor is their arrival -- or even, really their existence -- hinted at in the three-fourths of the play before they're discovered crowded into Mel and Edna's apartment, three-quarters of the way through the play. You can do this sort of thing in a TV show, or a movie; on stage, however, there is a gathering expectation that if a play is a two-hander for the first hour or so, it'll remain one.

The reason for this difference, of course, is fundamentally economic: for a TV show or movie, you only need to hire the actors once. For the run of a play, however, you hire them for the entire run, and they spend a great deal of time not doing much. This means it doesn't happen often. Indeed, this is the only script I know which introduces two-thirds of the cast for one scene -- less than a quarter of the total time, and late in the play. All this means theatre audiences don't expect it (unless they've read the script, and even then, I can attest, it feels like a surprise). In turn, this means it had better be important. In fact, however, the sudden appearance of Mel's three sisters (played to good comic effect, but to little else, by Deborah Allen, Glenda Landry, and Maureen Steeves) and his brother (in a very strong performance by C. David Johnson) seems little more than a belated bit of exposition ("ah, this is how Mel got to be this way"), and a pretty inadequate preparation for Mel and Edna's rediscovery of each other's loyalty.

Somehow it all stayed television. If McKay occasionally sounded like Archie Bunker or Ralph Cramden, if all three of Mel's sisters were a bit like The Golden Girls made out of brass, it was perfectly understandable. At the end, Simon hasn't achieved Miller's apotheosis of failure, nor has he transported us to a space beyond the Edison's living room, and TNB hasn't transformed the script beyond its limitations.

It's sad for a number of reasons that this is the last show of this truncated season. I'd been looking forward to the TNB response to the real theatrical challenges posed by The Glass Menagerie. For the rest of the season, though, we'll have to settle for the real thing: Friends, anyone?

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