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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, May 13, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 19
Unrestrained Prisoner a classic at ACT
Arts & Entertainment
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Unrestrained Prisoner a classic at ACT

by Eric Andrews-Katz - SGN Contributing Writer

The Prisoner of Second Avenue
ACT Theatre
Through May 29


The Prisoner of Second Avenue is what is called 'Classic Neil Simon.' Although written in 1971, this amusing comedy only goes to prove the old adage that 'everything old is new again.' Opening at Seattle's ACT Theatre, the play does what a comedy should: it makes us think, but not too hard; it makes us laugh out loud; and it lets us escape, for at least two hours, to an evening of entertainment.

The play revolves around Mel Edison and his wife, Edna. They are a middle-aged couple living in a comfortable apartment on Second Avenue in Manhattan. Mel is having anxiety as his fears of losing his job during the nation's recession slowly become a bitter reality. Adding to the stress are the unbearable heat wave New York is suffering and the upstairs neighbor's constant complaints, and the bad luck comes to a head when the couple finds their apartment burglarized.

When the inevitable emotional breakdown happens to Mel, the couple's roles are reversed and Edna becomes the one who brings home the paycheck. Mel's three sisters and a brother become involved and want to help (as long as it doesn't cost too much and the treatment meets their approval). What Edna and Mel discover is that they are stronger than they thought, and with the knowledge they can rely on each other, there is nothing they can't get through.

The six characters are all wonderfully cast. Angst-ridden Mel is played perfectly by R. Hamilton Wright. He presents the character on stage as if he understands each emotion Mel is going through. From the fretful pacing to the appropriate cracking in his voice, Wright shows the nervous energy anyone would experience going through the same thing, without allowing it to go over the top. He shows us Mel's anxiety breakdown without having him become a stereotyped schmuck.

Seattle favorite Anne Allgood plays Edna Edison. Allgood delivers the usual top-notch performance that her fans have come to expect from seeing her name in the program. She easily shows us the concern for her husband, as well as the strength to take the workforce by the horns and provide for her family. Allgood embraces the humor that Neil Simon has written, and delivers it with excellent timing.

The other four cast members only add to the comedy. The three sisters (Julie Briskman, Kimberly King, and Cynthia Lauren Tewes) could be related to any audience member. Their collected performances, as they are written, may hint at stereotypical ethnicity, but they play well enough to be any one of several ethnic backgrounds, presenting the images of some relative that we all can recognize. The older brother Harry, played by John Aylward, stands out as the dominant sibling. Aylward does a great job of the subtle struggles of assuming responsibility while trying to control his resentment towards his younger brother at being 'the favorite.' His is the human connection to Mel from what would otherwise be an alien family.

Neil Simon wrote The Prisoner of Second Avenue in 1971, yet it remains relevant and reflective of today's situations. Despite a few references that date the show (Governor Nelson Rockefeller, LP stereos), the show could take place in the New York City of today. It definitely contributes to the success of this production. The characters are exposed, the situation is laid out, and the humor comes through. The ACT's director, Warner Shook, deserves credit. What could easily become a dated show instead becomes something of modern relevance that allows the audience to identify with the characters, but still remain detached enough to laugh at them (and perhaps ourselves), as well.

The Prisoner of Second Avenue began Broadway previews on October 9, 1971, and ran for a total of 798 performances. Originally staring Peter Falk as Mel, Lee Grant as his wife, and Vincent Gardenia as his brother, the play was nominated for three Tony Awards in 1972 (including Best Play) and won for Best Featured Actor. The film version was released in 1975 starring Jack Lemmon, Anne Bancroft, and Gene Saks, with a score by Marvin Hamlisch. F. Murray Abraham and Sylvester Stallone have brief appearances, as this was early in their careers. The movie earned Bancroft a BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) Award nomination.

Neil Simon is a true American playwright, born on July 4, 1927. He began his career writing for the early giants of radio and television earning credits on The Phil Silvers Show, Your Show of Shows, and Sergeant Bilko. Come Blow Your Horn opened on Broadway in 1961, paving the way for future works. Little Me, Barefoot in the Park, Sweet Charity, Biloxi Blues, and many others would earn him many accolades, including two Emmy Awards, four Tony Awards, a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and a Broadway theater named in his honor.

To contact Eric Andrews-Katz, email eric@sgn.org.

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