July 25, 2009 performance reviewed by Frances Benn Hall
Berkshire Theatre Festival’s production of the Neil Simon play, The Prisoner of Second Avenue, is a hilarious comedy that at times spills over into farce in the incredible number of disasters that befall the middle-aged couple inhabiting a 14th floor apartment in Manhattan. It is a play that surprisingly has moments of poignancy, as well.
The action all takes place in the apartment of Mel and Edna Edison (Stephen DeRosa and Veanne Cox). When the play opens on a heat wave, with aromas from the city garbage strike wafting in through the windows, with the air conditioning malfunctioning, and with riotous neighbors voices and music disturbing the peace, the final straw is that Mel, now 47 has just been fired from the only job he knows how to do.
Mel is worrying himself into a nervous breakdown, and Edna tries to be helpful and supportive as long as she can. But things get worse when she, having lost her key, goes out for a few minutes leaving time for the apartment to burglarized, down to their last ice cube, and Mel has a nervous breakdown.
At this point, the family assembles from out of town and Mel’s brother Harry and three sisters, in descending ages, Pauline (Jeanne Paulsen), Jessie (Denny Dillion), and Pearl (Alice Playton), appear on the scene. Harry, as family head, attempts to explain to the “girls” how if each were to contribute “x” amount to the situation, things can be worked out. Not an easy task with their interruptions and interpretations, and one shattered temporarily by Edna arriving with a totally different idea.
It is in the tricky family love that poignancy moves in on the play despite the fact that all the scenes are hilarious. And there is a solution, be it slow to arrive in the lives of Mel and Edna, but a solution nonetheless.
The six characters each inhabit their characters meticulously. The dialog is rich and quickly paced, fluent and funny, bewildered and understanding.
As Edna, Cox varies her role nicely from patient support of Mel’s ranting, through attempts to help and encourage, until her own desperate need to literally rend her garments in her need for a hot bath in an apartment with the water turned off.
DeRosa’s Mel brings to his growing desperation moods that vary from a whining desperation to defiant ones of screaming on the balcony at the upstairs neighbors who seem to be having no trouble with their water. Yet he has in him a quality that others love and seek to help. An unsympathetic/sympathetic character able to provoke the strong love (and even envy) of a third leading character in the play, Harry’s final scene with Mel, played strongly by Julian Gamble.
Each of the three supporting roles of the sisters are played by actors with star quality, and each creating a carefully crafted character in the family pecking order.
Warner Shook directed; Scott Bradley designed the great prison-wall front that opens on his intricate set (with almost as many doors and areas as a farce; and they get slammed) and Laurie Churba Kohn’s costumes put us into that 1970s era. Plot lines in script also clue us in in: Erma could be shocked at the high cost of psychiatrist, $40 an hour! Scott Killian was responsible for the sound which included radio sound bites that separated scenes.
The play runs around two hours and seems shorter. Enjoy.