Second Avenue Serenade
The Prisoner of Second Avenue Directed by Scott Weiner At South House, Dec. 10-12
NEIL SIMON wrote only one successful play after The Prisoner of Second Avenue. Then he moved to Los Angeles. Prisoner is his ode to New York City, a typical Simon comedy that catalogues the neurotic lives of Mel (Michael Achtman) and Edna (Sarah McPhee) Edison: boy lives with girl, boy loses job, girl gets job, boy has breakdown, boy gets girl. Assaulted by noisy cars, barking dogs, loud neighbors, and Valium that doesn't work, Mel and Edna step into the ring with The City and survive, bruised and battered but still whole--and still suffering. As Mel asks, "Why do we pay somebody hundreds of dollars a month to live in an egg box that leaks?"
With a natural style essential to Simon plays, Achtman and McPhee display their characters' foibles coping with absurd situations--a robbery, for instance, in which the thieves steal everything but Mel's khaki pants--until Mel flips out. As his life unravels Achtman builds to a Vesuvius-like explosion. Eventually regaining control, he learns a new perspective, distinguishing the true necessities of life his cache of East Side luxuries.
Simon's Edna is not a well-developed character; she often serves as a sounding board for Mel. Nevertheless, McPhee maintains a reasoned voice. Not surprisingly, when Edna finds a job after Mel has lost his, she also assumes his original neurotic qualities. Act Two's opening marvelously reveals this switch as Simon contrasts Mel's aimless wandering with Edna's verbal rambling. They also tend to philosophize; in the course of the play they wonder anxiously about their existence. To Edna's assertion that you either live with life's problems or get out, Mel replies that human beings have the right to protest.
Director Scott Weiner has developed successfully the psyches of his main characters. We get a sense that despite the tortuous screams and yells that pass between Mel and Edna, they truly love and respect each other. Weiner's effort comes, however, at the expense of the staging and the more technical matters of the play. He confines the actors to small areas of the stage. Simon claims there is no breathing space in the entire city; Weiner's direction drives the point home with claustrophobic regularity.
Worse, Weiner's direction is often bland and static. He sidesteps many potential moments of comedic action. This is nowhere more apparent than in the family scene of Act Two; there is virtually no movement. Visiting Mel's apartment for the first time in nine years, his overbearing sisters do not even give it a cursory examination.
There are also major problems with the tone of this scene. After a finely controlled, realistic first act, Weiner miscalculates and guides the supporting actors into buffoonish caricatures. The actresses attempting Mel's sisters show no subtlety and more annoying, don't seem to believe in their characters as real people. Even their costumes are cartoonish and inappropriate. As Mel's constrained brother Harry, Jamie Orenstein aims at a fuller characterization, but remains rather wooden.
WEINER INSISTS on adding music at the end of each act, merely cheapening the moments instead of enhancing them. Simon's comedy is often more effective when it is subtle. Neither does the production get any help from Paul Eldrenkamp's set. More reminiscent of Arthur Miller's Brooklyn than of a Bloomie's-decorated Upper East Side apartment, it demands more money or more imagination.
But it is Achtman and McPhee who allow us to see through the fourth wall into their characters, and ultimately Simon's view of 1970's city life. Both have precise, well-timed deliveries that bring to life lines like, "Some night I'm gonna put that air conditioner on High, they'll have to get a flamethrower to get us out in the morning." Their understanding of the characters enables us to identify with them, even if we're not as efficient at coming up with the witty thing to say at the right moment.
Simon's study of Mel's boredom bogs down by the second act, and Mel and Edna's quarreling begins to grate. Likewise, Simon is out of his league when he attempts to portray a nervous breakdown; as a result Achtman is forced to rely on a farcical style when Mel snaps. But if, in the end, he and McPhee don't possess the passion to enflame the big emotional speeches in some scenes, they make us care about Mel's and Edna's ups and downs, triumphs and hardships. And that's no small feat.