Neil Simon seems to be having a bit of a renaissance. Several productions of his plays have been evident on Los Angeles stage in recent months. The most recent is a first-rate production of The Prisoner of Second Avenue now playing at the El Portal. It stars Jason Alexander and Gina Hecht with stellar support from Anne Korzen, Ron Orbach, Deedee Rescher, and Carole Ita White. Glen Casale, who often specializes in directing stars, is the director.
The original Broadway production opened in 1971 and ran for two years. The stars were Peter Falk and Lee Grant and the play was nominated for a Tony for Best Play. I was lucky enough to see that production when it opened in 1971. New York City was falling apart. There was crime everywhere (which Simon celebrated in the movie The Out of Towners), the garbage collectors were on strike (I think they became refuse engineers afterwards), and 42nd street was still home to pimps, whores, and hustlers. Only when Disney came to 42nd Street did things change, that and the fact that Mayor Giuliani cracked down on crime. I left New York in 1965 and was surprised to find a renewed city when I visited many years later. In the 1970s things were a mess.
A New York where crime was rampant and neighbor fought neighbor is the setting for The Prisoner of Second Avenue. The story traces the escalating problems of a middle-aged couple living on the Upper East Side of New York. Mel Edison (portrayed by Alexander) has lost his job and must learn to cope. He doesn’t cope well, proceeding to have a painful but hysterical nervous breakdown. With medical help he gets better but has driven his wife to madness, and the arrival of three sisters and a brother, who really don’t want to deal with the solution, especially if it requires spending money, sends him back over the edge. A set of terrible neighbors doesn’t help matters.
The cast is outstanding as is the direction. Jason Alexander deftly handles Mel’s descent into mental breakdown, and this at top speed and volume. Gina Hecht is the perfect foil and their scenes together are delicious. Mel’s family is a perfect representation of selfish New Yorkers and is played to the hilt by the actors. The play may seem dated but was accurate for the time, and the wonderful chemistry of all the players makes it a memorable evening.The Prisoner of Second Avenue plays at the El Porta until May 15.