The Prisoner of Second Avenue Review 2010
It's 1971 and Mel and Edna Edison live on the fourteenth floor of an apartment block in New York's Upper East Side. Though their flat is small – compact in estate agent's parlance – they are comfortably off and are into consumerism in quite a big way with subscriptions for magazines they hardly ever read and such like. Then it all turns sour when Mel's employers 'let him go' in order to cut costs. For Mel, a nervous person from childhood as his sister later tells us, the consequences are dire and he promptly plunges into depression. Fortunately, he has a stoical spouse who's devoted to him and quickly finds a job to supplement the family income. But that too has adverse consequences on Mel's psychological condition. All this takes place in a city itself in the midst of a financial crisis and which later on was more or less broke.
Now almost 40 years old, this play - surprisingly - doesn't show its age as much as one might think, though it's nevertheless a little wrinkled around the gills. There are obvious parallels with the recession we now seem to be emerging from, and the references to consumerism are as relevant now as they were when the play was first produced back in 1971. However, there's been no attempt to modernise the play by implanting it into the 21st century, and rightly so.
It's obvious from the start that Mel and Edna are what can only be described as soulmates, and that comes across very strongly in the performances. Jeff Goldblum's Mel is rather self-obsessed, bordering on the paranoid, but his wife Edna (Mercedes Ruehl) is confident and forceful enough to stand up for herself when his anger and frustration are turned in her direction. 'Don't take it out on me' she says, firmly, which stops Mel in his tracks. Goldblum's performance is restrained considering the opportunity to go overboard with a psychological breakdown. But even at the beginning of the play, his physical appearance reflects his inner turmoil, and there's a clear descent into mental instability. Mercedes Ruehl's Edna is a coper. The kind of person who gears-up and takes responsibility when events take a turn for the worse. Though she comes home from work to make Mel's lunch, she's not just his matrimonial slave as she makes clear – she actually enjoys preparing lunch and spending time with him.
Neil Simon's play has several niggling aspects. First, it's got a sugary-sweet, happily-ever-after ending which doesn't wholly convince given that Mel has had a nervous breakdown and has lost his job of 22 years. The rapid turnaround in Mel's psychological condition is too sudden and seems forced. And the appearance of Mel's brother and sisters who rally round to help him, even though they've not been in Mel's apartment or life for more than 9 years, seems more like a device to fill a gap, rather an integral event that's essential to the development of the piece. What the play seems to be saying is that, in the midst of private and public chaos, love will win through and make everything better. I'm not sure that is reality or was even in the USA of the early 1970s, and I think there would have been more mileage, and more humour, in exploring how the situation might have developed without the involvement of Mel's siblings or the sudden reversal in Mel's health.
On the positive side, there's a good dose of distinctive, wry New York humour. For example, when Mel's been made redundant and his wife asks him what he did during the day, he says “I took a walk … from the bedroom to the living room”. And when the apartment is robbed while Edna is out shopping she says to Mel “ What was I supposed to do, take the furniture with me?”. And even if the plot lacks some credibility, the relationship between Jeff Goldblum's Mel and Mercedes Ruehl's Edna is distinctly defined and drawn in the well-executed performances. Overall, it's amusing and enjoyable without being exceptional.
"What the evening delivers in clever one-liners, it lacks in corresponding emotional thoroughness."
Dominic Cavendish for The Daily Telegraph
"Swampy terrain between drama and comedy it’s all awkward timing and jagged pacing."
Fiona Mountford for The Evening Standard
"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."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"A bleak and mostly cheerless entertainment...Terry Johnson's production does its best to keep the laughs coming in spite of everything, but the flipside of Simon's writing habit, his Woody Allen mode, can't sustain the dramatic energy of a play that finally resorts to unsuitably pallid metaphor. "
Michael Coveney for The Independent
"This scratchy tale is full of anxieties which now feel slightly dated."
Quentin Letts for Daily Mail
"After a time, it is all excessively repetitive and predictable."
Paul Callan for Daily Express