Montgomery Theater’s latest production, THE PRISONER OF SECOND AVENUE by Neil Simon, is enjoying the 40th anniversary of its original opening on Broadway. Director Thomas Quinn and a stellar cast bring this seldom-seen production to life, and prove that this show (at least) can stand the test of time.
PRISONER takes place in (where else?) New York City in the early 1970’s, in the apartment of Mel and Edna Edison (Tony Braithwaite and Mary Carpenter.) If you recall this era, it was not the finest hour for the city that never sleeps…unemployment soaring to over 10%, garbage piled in the streets, and crime at an all-time high; NYC was voted one of the worst places to live during this period, and deservedly so. It was an economic disaster zone…hmmm, sounds somewhat familiar, no?
The play opens with Mel sitting on the sofa in his apartment, sighing. We discover that he is concerned about the possibility of losing his job, that the garbage strike is in full bloom, the city is in the midst of a heat wave, and the next-door neighbors are making (in Mel’s opinion, at least) too much noise for him to sleep. This, of course, awakens Edna, and she listens helplessly as Mel rants about everything. This leads to a confrontation with another (upstairs) neighbor, with disastrous results for Mel. Things continue to deteriorate for Mel, as he does lose his job and his apartment is robbed and vandalized, which results in Mel having a melt-down. Edna, ever faithful does all she can to be supportive, but nothing helps. Eventually Mel’s brother and sisters try to come to the aid of their brother, which brings more troubles to bear.
If this doesn’t sound like the usual Neal Simon comedy to you, you’re spot on. This was one of the first of the Simon comedies that dealt with controversial issues of the day, and were much darker than the earlier plays. As such, it’s not performed as often as many of the “funnier” shows by Simon, and other productions of this that I’ve seen have been very dark and dull. This is not the case with the Montgomery Theater production…the pace is lively, the leads crackle individually and together, and the show (while certainly darker than the usual laugh-fest) maintained a comic tone amidst the tragedy.
Tony Braithwaite and Mary Carpenter (Mel and Edna) work beautifully together. Anyone who has seen these two before knows of their comic timing and skill, but in PRISONER we see a more controlled performance at times, never allowing things to descend into slapstick farce. The scenes between them are electric, lines flying back and forth, the audience following along with every word. We feel for Mel, share in his frustration and in Edna’s compassionate attempts to get him to calm down. The Edison siblings…Harry (Robb Hunter), Pearl (Ellen Rainer), Jessie (Michelle Pauls) and Pauline (Linda Friday) are all first-rate, adding a well-meaning cluelessness that was at times touching, at times hilarious. Edna’s interaction with them when they all gather to discuss Mel’s future was a delight to watch. Extra kudos to the (uncredited) upstairs neighbor, without whom a couple of the scenes would not have had the finishing punch they deserved.
PRISONER is a difficult play to carry off successfully; many productions come off as too dark and not funny. Montgomery Theater has put together a first-rate cast and crew who keep things moving along, keeping true to the comic roots of the playwright and also true to the times. Don’t miss this production!
THE PRISONER OF SECOND AVENUE
by Neil Simon
Directed by Thomas Quinn
June 23 – July 16, 2011
124 Main Street
Souderton, PA 18964