The Theatreguide.London Review
The Prisoner of Second Avenue
Vaudeville Theatre Summer 2010
This is a Neil Simon comedy, which means that it is very funny.
It is not the best Neil Simon comedy and, except for one brilliant performance, it is not being done very well, which means that it is not as constantly funny as it ought to be. But it is Neil Simon, and half-speed Neil Simon is better than most.
(Just because it's going to take me a while to get to her, let me say that the brilliant performance is by Mercedes Ruehl, about whom more later.)
The 1972 comedy (strikingly undated four decades later) is about a man being driven crazy by the city of New York - by noisy neighbours, smelly streets, malfunctioning air conditioners, crime, dirt, high costs and, as a topper, losing his job.
Simon does here what he does in several of his best comedies - take a very recognisable situation or character type (Hands up, anyone who can't list things about where you live that drive you crazy), and exaggerate it to the level of farce.
But the key word there is 'exaggerate.' Just as The Odd Couple is built on the fact that Felix and Oscar are like people we know, multiplied to the Nth degree, the whole joke here is that Mel Edison is being driven really, really bonkers by the hassles that we merely grumble about.
The comedy virtually requires the actor to go way over the top in manic exasperation (Think of Oscar reacting to Felix).
But star Jeff Goldblum and director Terry Johnson have oddly chosen to underplay Mel, reaching for quiet despair rather than frenzy.
That may be more realistic, it may be more psychologically justifiable, it may be more satisfying for the actor. But it isn't as funny.
Again and again lines go by that are mildly amusing when spoken quietly - Simon is an expert gag writer - that you sense could be hilarious with a little desperation behind them.
That this can be blamed largely on the director is evidenced by our knowledge from his films that Jeff Goldblum is perfectly capable of giving a big over-the-top performance and of being very funny at it, and also by Terry Johnson's misdirection of a minor scene involving minor characters.
Midway through the play Mel's brother and sisters visit to offer their limited sympathy for his breakdown. The scene is admittedly not particularly well written, Simon depending on barely-sketched-in middle-aged middle-class Jewish stereotypes. But it could have some broad comedy if it were played with any energy or snap.
But it just lies there, with long dead pauses as if the actors were still unsure of their lines and cues, and hadn't figured out where the jokes were yet, or how to time them and punch them up. And that, along with Goldblum's self-defeating performance, indicates a director without sufficient sympathy or understanding of the play.
But then there's Mercedes Ruehl. Her role, as Mel's wife, is written essentially as a straight man and feed to him, but Ruehl so completely captures the spirit of the play and the comic essence of the character that Goldblum winds up playing straight man to her.
It is her lines, delivered with exactly the right balance of realism and comic exaggeration, that get all the laughs, and it is she who captures the 'It's extreme but it's true' quality on which Simon's comedy depends.
It is not that she steals the play, but that director and co-star have handed it to her, and she makes the most of the gift.
Neil Simon at less than his best is still funny. Jeff Goldblum even misdirected is still fun to watch. But it is Mercedes Ruehl, giving a lesson in how to play Neil Simon, that makes this show worth seeing.
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