By LIBBY MOTIKA
Circling the News Contributor
Despite all the challenges of the last two years, Theatre Palisades’ stalwart cast and crew prevailed and reopened last Friday night with Neil Simon’s “The Prisoner of Second Avenue.”
Thanking the full house, producer Sherman Wayne assured the audience “no matter the decade or the century, theater reminds us that we are not alone and allows us to face life’s problems so we can move forward.”
While somewhat of a departure for Neil Simon’s joke-light fare, “The Prisoner of Second Avenue,” written in the early 1970s, is as relatable today as it reflects the anxious, exhausted country we are now living in.
Set in New York City, as are most of the native New Yorker’s plays, “Prisoner” describes the city in the 1970s beset with a high crime rate, high inflation and frequent garbage strikes.
Simon comments on the sorry state of the city by centering the action around longtime city dwellers Mel and Edna Edison, who are trapped in these new and unsettling circumstances.
The couple’s life is being upended by the accumulation of annoyances, big and small, that frays their sense of well-being and safety.
Act One finds the couple in the living room of their 14th floor apartment trying to cope. The barking dogs, the continuous flushing toilet, rude neighbors and smell of garbage fuels a slingshot banter – Mel grousing at full tilt, Edna working patiently to ease his frustration. Mel asserts “when you are a human being, you have the right to complain.”
The coup de grace that finally kills Mel’s dignity and sense of worth, is having been fired from his job of 22 years. Flattened, Mel loses his grip and suffers a mental breakdown.
“I am unraveling, something is happening to me, I am losing control,” he says. Edna suggests analysis. “I don’t need analysis, I need lost and found!”
Although most of Simon’s work is autobiographical, “The Prisoner of Second Avenue” is an exception as it is based on his first wife’s uncle who went bankrupt and had a nervous breakdown in his 40s.
Certainly, there is nothing funny about that, but Simon alleviates the gloom in the second act by introducing Mel’s siblings, who while debating ways to help their poor brother, fall into bickering among themselves as siblings often do. Families do this, and that makes the squabbling funny.
The play hinges on Mel and Edna, who must keep their domestic back-and-forth choreographed, playing against each other, while pitched toward exaggeration, so the audience somehow believes that their love will carry them through these troubles.
Jud Meyers (Mel) and Ashley Adler (Edna) are perfectly matched, delivering ratatat volleys with impeccable timing, landing jokes seamlessly. As with many couples, when one is down, the other reassures, alternating as the situation presents itself.
Directed by Gail Bernardi, the play also features a supporting cast, including Patricia Butler, Laura Goldstein, Martha Hunter and Ben Lupejkis as Mel’s siblings. Kudos to Sherman Wayne for designing an efficient set with views of the living room, hallway, balcony and kitchen — all on the modestly sized playhouse stage.
“The Prisoner of Second Avenue” continues through May 1, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. at Pierson Playhouse, 941 Temescal Canyon Road. (Visit: theatrepalisades.org.)