Opening Nights: The Prisoner of Second Avenue

This 1971 play feels pertinent again.

Opening-night laughs are often bigger than usual, but the ones that greeted ACT's revival of Neil Simon's 1971 play—about a man who in swift succession loses his job, his cool, his identity, and his mind—were gargantuan. It was as though the neurotic, crazy-making situations onstage, directed by Warner Shook, unleashed a gigantic, communal cri de coeur that had been welling in chests desperate for release. Yes, the traditional marriage of Mel (masterfully un-stagey R. Hamilton Wright) and Edna (Anne Allgood) feels a bit dated; and yes, the jokes' setups are as mechanical as Venus Williams' serves. But who can argue with technique when the cast hits ace after ace? Matthew Smucker's effectively claustrophobic apartment set, sunken like a diminutive, walled gladiator pit (or rat maze?), seems to tighten around its inhabitants. Meanwhile, macabre newscasts—cheerfully delivered on multiple TV screens by Kurt Beattie's anchorman—further underscore the futility of life. New York City was famously going to hell in the 1970s, and perhaps Seattle has been spared such dystopia during our present recession. Psychologically, however, it doesn't feel far off. At first, Mel seems undone by a conspiracy of tiny irritations, including the neighbors' noise—which Edna must put her ear to the wall to hear—and the stench of rotting, rising garbage from 14 stories below. ("Soon this apartment's going to be on the third floor," Mel grouses.) But it's actually the loss of his job that's made the other irritants unbearable. Much of the first act's humor derives from Mel's flailings between hyperbole and understatement. Without character-stabilizing employment (like lithium for a manic depressive), all proportion is lost. Allgood's initially thankless straight-woman role gets distinctly funnier once Edna receives her own affronts to dignity. Upon discovering items missing from their robbed apartment, her tense frame vibrates like a furious electron that's been stripped from its atom. Act 2 introduces Mel's four loud, bristly siblings, who try to help their suffering baby brother. The star-studded lineup includes John Aylward, Cynthia Lauren Tewes (cruise director Julie McCoy from The Love Boat!), Kimberly King, and Julie Briskman. It's odd during the interval to lose the main couple (one on a walk, one with the doctor), like watching All in the Family morph into Maude. Yet Mel must inevitably return and be healed. Simon, a boy genius from the golden age of television, produces a cop-out ending that's pat and blah. Still, with virtuoso acting like this, you're more than happy to accept it.

 
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