The Prisoner Of Second Avenue

Published July 14, 2010

With two high profile Shakespearean plays currently running at the Old Vic, Kevin Spacey decided to cross the river and place two of America’s most respected actors on stage in the glittering West End. 

While Jeff Goldblum and Mercedes Ruehl positively shine, Neil Simon’s play, in the best possible way, could hardly be described as glittering.  A hilarious insight into the lives of a couple living on the 14th floor of a noisy, hot New York apartment, The Prisoner Of Second Avenue is awash with negative observations and pedantic frustration.

Set in the 1960s, Goldblum, as Mel Edison, bares more than a little resemblance to our modern face of neuroticism Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Larry David. Wide eyed, gangly armed and with a full head of crazy, dishevelled hair, Mel finds himself unemployed, suffering chest pains, the victim of a burglary and perpetual pessimism all in the space of a week.

While Mel suffers a nervous breakdown – which is played out with Goldblum’s very physical style of comedy, not allowing for much sympathy from the audience – his doting wife Edna (Ruehl) stays by his side with so much good-humoured support you almost feel the self-indulgent schmuck doesn’t deserve her.

With the arrival of his three doting older sisters and the final voice of reason in the form of his brother Harry, Mel begins to get well again, while Edna is left to unravel slowly as she too embraces a darker, unhealthy, but altogether more humorous way of thinking.

Simon’s play could easily be a two hander in the more then capable hands of Goldblum and Ruehl. With his crazy flickering eyes and Woody Allen pace of speaking, Goldblum is perfect as the obsessive Mel. Prone to exaggeration and sweeping statements, Simon’s dialogue is relentlessly negative – “Miracles don’t happen when you’re 47. Moses must have been 23, 24?” – but the banter between the couple is strangely endearing as you watch the two embark on a verbal tango you know they have been practising for years.

Rob Howell’s set is the icing on the cake with its nostalgic tribute to the fondue sets and beige and brown swirly patterned sofas that cluttered 1960s living rooms. When Mel pulls back the terrace doors to receive his watery comeuppance in the scene made famous by an equally sour Jack Lemmon in the 1975 film, the sounds of sirens and cabs and the imagined smell the of garbage below immerse you fully in the bizarrely comforting – and worryingly familiar – world of Mel and Edna.

CM