The Prisoner of Second Avenue by Neil Simon. Directed by Flo Hayle.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"...Cancer from eating graham crackers."
What do you get when a writer of serious comedy decides to get serious about a subject that really isnít funny? You get a comedy (classic definition: nobody dies) that isnít funny even though it tries to be funny. Tries hard. Gets a few laughs. Isnít funny.
Is that a bad thing? Sometimes no. Sometimes an unfunny comedy is a decent thing, a good thing. One prime example of this funny/unfunny syndrome is this bizarre play by the King of Funnyland, Neil Simon. His best comedies are laugh riots, but his best plays are those that make you think. The Prisoner of Second Avenue makes you think. I have now seen, with this new production at the Ghent Playhouse, seven different companies do this play - that includes the original Broadway production twice by the way, with very different actors in the lead roles. I generally do not enjoy it.
I enjoyed the recent production at the Berkshire Theatre Festival with Stephen DeRosa and Veanne Cox. The two of them made Mel and Edna Edison into very funny people indeed.: funny and touching. The director, Warner Shook, made some dangerous choices and the actors gave themselves to the director and his whims. Somehow it turned the play I hated into a genuine laugh-riot Simon comedy.
Flo Hayle, who has directed this production, pulls us back from the slapstick into the realistic. She and the Ghent cast realize more laughs from quiet moments than from loud or ironic ones. They bring us back to a situation that is all too real and make it seem important in spite of the Bronx accents and the tendency to slap gestures. In effect they are sitting somewhere in the middle ground between the too serious and the too funny. They have landed in the "real" and apparently that isnít a bad thing to do with this play.
Simonís story, simply, is about a man who loses his job, his self-respect and a whole lot of sleep whose wife attempts to bring them back but in doing so loses a lot of herself along the way. These two love one another dearly and it is that love and that respect which, like a willow tree, drips to the ground in a series of tableau images and leaves the viewer breathless at times.
Mark Schane-Lydon takes on Mel as though he was an adventure and he never lets go of the reins. From his quiet anguish over his situation and his air-conditioning to his rip-roaring conspiracy theory speeches Schane-Lydon hold the stage as though he had a follow-spot trained on him. His energy and his subtle, nuanced changes bring us a very human Mel, one who uses comedy to unburden a moment or to put a strangle-hold on an emotion. This is his best performance to date with this company and I think it deserves to be seen.
As his supposedly unflappable wife Edna, Roseann Cane takes on the most difficult part I have seen her play. In spite of a cast of six visible players, two off-stage characters and three supers with a nefarious mission, this is still definitely a two-character play and Cane gets to explore the one who almost never has felt real and alive before. (This part even defeated Ann Bancroft who undertook it in the sadly unsuccessful movie with Jack Lemmon.) Cane holds Edna together masterfully until the final scene. But up until then she is really living the role on stage.
Melís older brother Harry is played nicely by Paul Murphy who has this character down perfectly. I think the direction holds him back a bit too much, but basically I liked his work very much here.
Melís three sisters are played to the calm, super-reality-based levels by Sally Dodge, Kathy Wohlfield and - at her very best - Marie Allocca. Her Pearl is quizzical and endearing. Dodgeís character, Pauline, expresses just the right amount of personal turpitude with her "how much?" attitude.
Ben Heymanís set is perfectly functional and Ted Bombolaís lighting works even when it doesnít define time of day or time of year. A few oddities will, I am told, be straightened out. Joanne Maurer, who always seems to know the characters era and needs, provides the right costumes for everyone.
Flo Hayle, whom I have known as an actress and singer since the 1960s, is a welcome addition to the roster at this theater. Her work has clarity and shows an understanding of who, what and why the characters are as they are in this play.
The final scene lags quite a bit, and the final image of the play, Simonís jokish raison díetre for creating the two hour evening, doesnít work. It only has once for me in all these different editions and here it just didnít.
That said, if your taste runs to the unusual, if you yearn for a comedy that will let you laugh but doesnít do its damndest to make you, take a peak at the Ghent Playhouse production of this uneven Neil Simon treasure. Itís been buried and now itís unearthed. You should see this second staged resurrection and admire its faults, failures and familiar faces. Thatís always fun.
The Prisoner of Second Avenue runs through May 30 at the Ghent Playhouse, on Town Hall Road, adjacent to the Ghent firehouse, just off Route 66, where tickets are only $12-$15. For information go to their website at www.ghentplayhouse.org or call the box office at 518-392-6264.