The Prisoner of Second Avenue

Neil Simon
Old Vic production
Vaudeville Theatre
(2010)

Publicity photo

Kevin Spacey has decided that one stage is not enough so, in a new venture, the Old Vic has set up shop in the West End at the Vaudeville.

To start off what could become a regular occurrence, he has asked an English director, Terry Johnson, to revive a Neil (The Odd Couple) Simon classic with a pair of American stars.

Despite parallels with our current economic travails, The Prisoner of Second Avenue may seem dated, taking us back to the days when Nixon had not yet been found out but, at its best, is incredibly funny.

The play is a kind of sophisticated sitcom that features Jeff Goldblum (who had such a fine double act with Spacey in Speed-the-Plow) as Mel Edison, a neurotic New Yorker, and American-based stage and screen favourite Mercedes Ruehl playing his wife, Edna.

During the first part of the 2¼ hours, everything bad that could happen to a man afflicts poor Mel - then things get worse. Thanks to the use of spoof TV newscasts, we are led to associate his decline with a meltdown of The Great American Dream as New York begins to fall apart almost as badly as our hero.

Mel is an advertising executive with a swanky job and the kind of loving, devoted wife that went out of fashion when feminism was discovered. Edna cooks his dinner, bolsters his confidence and, when the need arises, becomes the cheerful breadwinner. It is hard to believe that sort of thing still happened in New York City only forty years ago.

The action takes place in Rob Howell's vision of a prototypical, unfashionable 14th floor Upper East Side apartment, deliberately cut down to emphasise the feeling of claustrophobia.

When we first enter, 47-year-old Mel is already suffering from middle age angst. He is raging ineffectually against not only the neighbours but life itself.

The neuroses only get worse and the combination of a bad career break and burgled apartment take him over the edge. All of this allows Goldblum to strut his stuff to great comic effect, well supported by Miss Ruehl.

The fun is then interrupted by a rather unnecessary single joke scene in which Mel's four older siblings arrive at the apartment for a kind of wake. Despite the efforts of Anglo-Australian actor Linal Haft in the role of successful eldest brother Harry, the arrival of four caricatures does nothing for the comedy.

The play recovers to an extent and comes together for a conclusion that is almost inevitable from the start.

Despite his contribution to Sweet Charity, Neil Simon is not as popular in the UK as he once was and David Cromer's critically-acclaimed attempt to bring him back to Broadway last year ended disastrously.

However, with roots and humorous sensibilities similar to those of Woody Allen and his ability to write great one-liners for a couple of big name stars, The Prisoner of Second Avenue should sell well enough during this strictly limited (after a short extension) run.

Playing until 25 September

Reviewer: Philip Fisher