For those whose paramount concern is not for the ambience of the theatre or the many tricks of its architectural add-ons, but for the length of a stare or for the stillness in a moment the front row (or failing this any of the stalls behind) is the ideal place to be. Here, the brevity, virtue and detail of the performance survives untouched: the patience of the lonely man poised on the edge of his seat awaiting the lights, the dust plume that coughs up into the air, the softened voice changing pitch, the trembling weakness in the stance, the winking eye as curtain later descends. I was front row centre for The Prisoner of Second Avenue and the reward of seeing these moments has done away completely with any inclination to book anything again in the dress circle. The little that was not on view held absolutely no consequence. Beanbags, for instance, don’t interest me. It was, instead, the kind of seat where your date’s partially exposed foot is close to those spinning oranges, the ones the principal just scattered in your direction and sent thumping to the floor; where in one comic instance Jeff Goldblum’s brain-damaged stare into the middle distance where the TV sits reaches and connects fleetingly with yours (and you are invariably giggling like some mad drinker); it is the kind of seat where those projectile buttons that come whizzing off his shirt in a state of supreme vexation come whizzing by your head, and are recovered at the interval by an apologetic stagehand. No seat is more rewarding in the service of this Neil Simon production than the centre seat in the Vaudeville’s front row.

His play dates from 1971, before President Ford rebuffed New York City Mayor Abraham Beame’s appeals in 1975 for help in the city’s debt obligations, and after a nationwide strike by auto workers against General Motors and the massacre at Kent State of four students by young and inexperienced national guardsmen, both in 1970. Scripted, therefore, long after the elegantly framed social comedies of Come Blow Your Horn (1961), Barefoot in the Park (1963) and The Odd Couple (1965), Prisoner revels in anxiety and syntactical expression, its subject the burgeoning ‘70s economic downturn and the burgeoning of a sense of collective working class protest. In this sense, the satirical re-staging of Grant Wood’s pre-Depression era American Gothic in much of the Old Vic’s publicity bears some meaning.

Jeff Goldblum (Mel Edison) and Mercedes Ruehl (Edna Edison) at the close of the show: The Prisoner of Second Avenue (2010)

As the now terminally redundant Mel Edison, a once dedicated advertising accounts executive in the service of his employer for 22 years, Jeff Goldblum is a pathetic and lively hero, his performance an enjoyable confection befitting of Simon’s broad characterisation. In great form, his idiosyncratic approach — less with the hands this time, far more with the eyes — owes perhaps a fair bit to the eccentric mannerisms of his Seth Brundle under the direction of David Cronenberg, and the actor has of course touched on similar social crises before, the John Landis film Into the Night (1985) for one. In that film, his Ed Okin abandons his unfaithful wife and drives around L.A. for hours, hoping this will have a therapeutic effect; in Prisoner, on the other hand, Mel never once loses that literal connection back to his wife. Domestic servitude and love are, for Edna, indissociable. Despite herself being part of a more egalitarian world wherein the professional sphere need not necessarily be male dominated, Edna is always supportive and always nurturing, a quality that actress Mercedes Ruehl presumably had to overlook in order to get at the meat. On occasion Simon addresses this, at one point joking that Mel’s reliance on Edna for care will one day extend into the bathroom, but in contrast less is made of her dependence on him, particularly when it comes down to the basics of personal attraction and fidelity.

The desire to transcend their white-collar lives, the impact of economic decline and of crime, the unjust punishment subsequently brought down upon them both, the emotional breakdowns they suffer, the sudden appearance of three equally nuts sisters, the implacable brother who scoffs at any desire to improve one’s lot, and the final return to a wintry scene of domestic harmony are characteristic of Simon, and in that sense Prisoner is as distanced from the current economic climate as Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) or Whatever Works (2009) are to the heyday of his stand-up. With Prisoner, he creates a specifically American idealisation with a socially therapeutic edge, his feed lines are often so indelicate you’d think this was a Chuck Lorre comedy, plus the trajectory of his narrative, from a metaphoric crucifixion to resurrection, is never once in question. These aren’t notes of dissent necessarily: just as we grow to accept a crude setting or an ill-placed stagelight we all enjoy a Simon play withstanding the happy ending; these are, nonetheless, points to which we must invariably turn when considering the relevance of a New York City play, set and originally staged in the early 1970s, to a twenty-first century London in the economic downturn. Written for The New York Times, Patrick Healy’s piece, “Second Avenue Hits Home on West End” (from July 30), for some reason downsizes this point. It is not Simon’s play and themes that are of relevance, it is the wit and skill of the performer. To my relief, the principals were brilliantly suited to their roles, he dowdy and unfashionable, Ruehl impetuous and outrageous, the pair in the sharpest form from the very start.

Jeff Goldblum and Mercedes Ruehl with support cast: The Prisoner of Second Avenue (2010)

4 September, 2010


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