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The Prisoner of Second Avenue

Jeff Goldblum and Mercedes Ruehl give top-notch performances in Terry Johnson's problematic production of Neil Simon's now-dated comedy about a middle-aged couple dealing with sudden unemployment. logo
Mercedes Ruehl and Jeff Goldblum
in The Prisoner of Second Avenue
(© Johan Persson)
At first glance, it's easy to see why the Old Vic chose Neil Simon's 1971 comedy The Prisoner of Second Avenue for its first foray into the West End. After all, the issues dealt with by the play feel quite current: the uneasy economic climate, the threat of redundancy, the undercurrent of financial anxiety.

Unfortunately, what may have felt daring and edgy when the play was originally staged now feels tired and surprisingly lacking in insight. The play shines little light on what it really means to become unemployed in middle age and is rather awkward in its handling of mental collapse.

Moreover, despite the top-flight work of stars Jeff Goldblum and Mercedes Ruehl, the rather stiff and staid direction of 2010 Tony Award winner Terry Johnson contributes to the production's difficulties.

The play concerns Mel Edison (Goldblum), a 47-year-old advertising executive, who is tipped over the edge by the loss of his job. He quickly descends into self-pity, moping around his apartment in his dressing gown, snapping at his loyal, underappreciated wife Edna (Ruehl) and becoming increasingly paranoid.

The Edisons' problems are echoed by the place in which they live: a cramped fourteenth floor apartment on the Upper East Side with noisy neighbors, faulty air-conditioning, and unreliable pipes. Mel feels penned in and soon starts to feel his predicament is the result of some conspiracy. When he starts waving a snow shovel around and menacing the neighbors, the already worried (and irritated) Edna decides he needs professional help.

Both actors milk all the laughs they can from the material and convincingly portray a long-married couple. In particular, Goldblum's performance is enjoyably physical. Long-limbed and rangy, he fidgets and twitches, clambers over the sofa, and kicks cushions around the set. His energy never lets up, to the point where it can feel like a slightly desperate attempt to compensate for the patchiness of the play. It is also difficult to completely accept his character as a man undergoing a breakdown.

Towards the end of the play, there's a sudden shift in tone as Mel's siblings -- his three sisters (amusingly played by Amanda Boxer, Patti Love, and Fiona Gillies), and his successful older brother (played by Linal Haft) -- arrive to cautiously offer their assistance. The play becomes broader, but the scene doesn't quite fit with what has gone before.

The commitment of the cast and design team can't be faulted; indeed, Rob Howell's set is stuffed full of pleasing details. Still, it speaks volumes when the funniest and most memorable moment of the production comes when one of the characters gets a bucket of water tipped over their head.

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