Tony Mastroianni Review Collection

"Prisoner" finds humor in life

Cleveland Press October 23, 1973

Neil Simon's "The Prisoner of Second Avenue" opened last night at the Hanna and it is another in Simon's growing number of comedies based on serious situations.

The serious situation this time is that a 47-year old man is being swallowed by the complexities of urban living, his job of 22 years has just been pulled out from under him and he is having a nervous break down.

It's hardly the stuff of comedy but neither have been many of Simon's other plays lately. But "Prisoner" works somewhat better than his story of a reformed alcoholic woman in "Gingerbread Lady," and has more insight than "Last of the Red Hot Lovers."

The hero is Mel Edison (Shelley Berman), first seen sitting up at 2:30 a.m. because it's 89 degrees outside but the air conditioner keeps the temperature 12 degrees indoors. He is on the 14th floor but he can smell the garbage on the street below. He is disturbed by the noises of two Lufthansa stewardesses next door. There are dogs barking below and when he yells at them a man shouts at him from above.

But above all, he tells his wife Edna (Mimi Hines) that he is lost. "'I don't know who or where I am. I don't need an analyst, I need a lost and found."

Further analysis seem, out of the question. The first analyst collected $23,000 from him and then went and died.

In the second scene he has finally lost his job. but it is almost an anticlimax to his wife's hysteria at finding the apartment has been cleaned out by thieves while she was away for a few minutes.

Now actually none of this sounds very funny, and handled by a lesser playwright it might have been either hopelessly crude or corny. But what have been described are the funniest parts of the play.

Simon's play opens strong and stays that way for about half of its length. The rest is sporadically funny, more funny than most plays are all the way through, but it's uneven and lacks steam at times.

The play also depends -- unusual in a Simon play -- on stage tricks, slapstick stage tricks, for a couple of its biggest laughs. A bucket of water being sloshed all over the hero seems odd coming from the master of one-liners.

There is a point about half-way along when Edison's family appears -- an older brother and three older sisters. They are vultures descending. At times the scene is awkward but there its more insight into how humans work and think than there is in the rest of the play.

Berman plays Edison fairly broadly. He suffers eloquently and hilariously but the performance is not entirely one of big gestures. Returning from his analyst and well-sedated, he fairly floats in with a pixie look on his face.

Mimi Hines, in a less showy part, does equally well as an anguished wife who turns breadwinner and then finds herself going the way of her husband.

The play has been re-directed for the national tour but it follows Mike Nichols' original staging closely. The pace seemed to be off last night which might account for the awkward moments in the family scene.

The scenes are linked by television newscasts that provide a background, of urban evil exaggerated so that it approaches the idiotic -- the governor has been mugged, the police commissioner was kidnaped, and a group of psychiatrists trapped in an elevator were treated for hysteria.

Who but Simon could find laughter in today's frightened life style?