The story concerns a middle-aged couple who have an apartment in a New York block. In the seventies New York had the highest crime rate in the world, rising employment, and was polluted with noise and stink. Mel, suffers the hardship of losing his job and is unable to find other work, complaining that no one wants to employ a forty seven year old man. His wife, Edna, returns to work as a secretary to help pay the bills. In the meantime Mel's mental health is steadily deteriorating, everything in life is becoming too much for him, including the neighbours! He feels trapped and useless and becomes so despondent he spends most of his time in the apartment, too depressed to venture out. When he finally suffers a breakdown, his three sisters and his brother arrive on the scene.
The story line sounds very depressing, but this backdrop provides Neil Simon with many opportunities to uncover the hidden humour in the way people often respond to desperate situations. In fact I believe the best comedy often comes from life's disasters. This is no exception, and Neil Simon is on top form here, delivering some witty one-liners that show his powers of observation.
Some may argue that the show does not carry the same impact it first did in the early seventies, because New York has changed for the better. The immense problems experienced in the city in the seventies are no longer so immense. However, this has little impact upon the show itself. Edna, the long-suffering wife, is most proberly not one that women of the nineties will easily identify with. But the comedy is not dated as some claim because of this. It is a comedy reflecting life in seventies New York and it still reflects what life was like in New York at that time. Although there are elements of the play that are still true today!
This play could not possibly work without careful casting and this show has certainly been perfectly cast with Richard Dreyfuss as' Mel' and Marsha Mason as 'Edna'. They are both making their West End stage debuts. The play re-unites this couple who starred in Neil Simon's film "The Goodbye Girl" in the 1970's.
Richard Drefuss's performance is phenomenal. He is a gifted actor who has exceptional timing and hilarious facial features. The look on his face, when he discovers that his liquor has been stolen in a burglary, is pure bliss. His performance alone is well worth the ticket price. Marsha Mason also puts in a solid professional performance that compliments Richard Drefuss's, which produces a brilliant double act.
The first hour of the show is a brisk whirlwind of comedy that is very funny. After the interval the play concentrates more on Mel's' breakdown and the comedy is reduced significantly. The arrival of Mel's siblings on the scene, is the weakest part of the play, however the momentum soon picks up again with their departure!
Early Notices in from the popular press are mixed: BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE of THE TIMES says, I can recommend the evening for one reason only: whatever Simon's more earnest intentions, you will laugh. Every so often." KATE BASSETT OF THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says the "play is dated but the star shines". ALASTAIR MACAULAY of the FINANCIAL TIMES says, "Simon weighs down the play with wisecracks, with gags so gratuitous that more than half could be excised." JOHN PETER of THE SUNDAY TIMES says " Mason's acting is like the script: all cliched gestures and voices. But then then the role has no character to it, so what could the poor woman do?"
'The Prisoner of Second Avenue' is still a great comedy and well worth seeing.
The Prisoner Of Second Avenue opens in Edna and Mel Edison's living room, from this point the play grabs you literally by the throat and does not let go until the interval. A flourish of one liners are delivered at a frantic pace in the first 48 minutes of the play and some incredible comic acting ability from both Richard Dreyfuss and Marsha Mason, are a total delight, although I suspect that Mr. Dreyfuss had the edge, (but this is probably me being biased)!
The first half of this play is dominated by the two main characters. For me there are a number of scenes that are just so well done and perfectly acted. To note just a few when 'Mel' tells Edna that he has lost his job, but tells her four days later, after they have been robbed. Then 'Mel' is arguing with his upstairs neighbours and is soaked in water! (This was just brilliant!)
One thing I did love about this play is that it was so cleverly written and has without question stood the test of time, and produces much opportunity for the actors talents. The 48 minutes of act one slows considerably in act two, and looks more at 'Mel's' breakdown, again some fine acting has you are almost reduced to tears and really feel for Mel & Edna Edisson. Mel's sisters and brother enter the scene to try and lend a helping hand to get 'Mel' some professional help, but the key word here is how much is 'x' ? if you have seen the play then you'll know, if not then you have missed a grate play. Mel's brother was played by Harry Ditson and his three sisters played respectively by Frances Jeater, Janette Legge & Frances Cuka, all give swift and solid performances.
However the play would certainly not have worked without the calibre of acting from Richard and Marsha, they were so perfectly for there roles. There are some fine big American film stars that truly give a great performance, but for me though the test of a fine and versatile actor is performing on stage. Richard Dreyfuss & Marsha Mason has without question passed the test in all respects. At the end of the play the cast received a much deserved standing ovation from an enthusiastic audience myself included, it has been quite sometime since I saw a standing ovation for a play. I also think that a mention should be given to the director David Taylor for such a splendid piece and a clever set design by Simon Higlett.