Sunday, July 11, 2010

Funny in parts: Neil Simon's The Prisoner of Second Avenue at the Vaudeville Theatre

There's plenty in Neil Simon's play to chime with big-city dwellers and fans of with Woody Allen's films, replete with funny one-liners, and a hopeless shmuck in the lead. It's Death of a Salesman territory without Arthur Miller's gift for social analysis, or Alan Ayckbourn's plays transported to New York without the experimental approach to drama. Neil Simon's hero is not so much a victim of a situation as a whinger whose life fails to match his over-inflated hopes.

The play opens in Mel and Edna Edison's fourteenth floor New York apartment at 2am. Mel's insomnia, he says, derives from the gross inconvenience of big-city life: noisy neighbours, the smell funnelling up from the street and slipshod plumbing that causes the toilet cistern to run incessantly and the air-con not to function at all. His wife's role at this point is to act as a sounding board for his complaints and suggest he calm down and take some Valium. Along with psychotherapy and alcohol, according to Mel, they've been tried and failed. That there's something else bothering him is signalled by a plaintive: 'I don't know who I am any more'.

Next the apartment is burgled. 'You think they took the ordinary stuff and left the Chivas Regal?' says an exasperated Edna as Mel, as usual, is slow to come to terms. It turnns out the reason Mel couldn't sleep is he has lost his job to financial recession.

It's about here you recognise the parallel with modern times, the reason for reviving the play.The script, in the hands of a better playwright, (Miller, for instnace) would analyse and offer insights. But it doesn't. This isn't about how capitalism betrays then gobbles up the 'little man'; it's about how the family rally round to bail him out. Apart from a minor niggle about a accepting money from your financially more successful brother, it's problem solved.

The actors do their best with the superficially amusing dialogue. Jeff Goldblum is watchable but miscast, too rangy and goggle-eyed for the part of the put-upon Mel. (Although perfect as mad scientists in The Fly and Jurassic Park) Mercedes Ruehl's whiny Bronx accent reminded me of Marge Simpson; her character's saint-like patience irritated me, too. I kept wanting her to punch her whining partner. The repeated slapstick episode where the upstairs neighbour throws a bucket of cold water over him had the audience laughing a tad too cruelly, I thought.They were as fed up with him as I was.

The direction was a bit slow in parts, but I saw a preview. The set wasn't very good; the burgled apartment should have been much more denuded of possessions. I hardly noticed the TV and Hifi were missing.

Parallels with current concerns weren't clear. Maybe brother Harry (Linal Haft) and his thrifty sisters represent the Big Society that will rescue us all from market forces and that's the message we should take away. I didn't find it very likely or convincing.

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