Neil Simon's odd coupling of black humor, schmaltz

Tony Braithwaite as a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown, in "The Prisoner of Second Avenue."
Tony Braithwaite as a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown, in "The Prisoner of Second Avenue." (BILL PAPULA)
Posted: June 28, 2011

In Montgomery Theater's production of The Prisoner of Second Avenue, Tony Braithwaite is mad as hell and he's not gonna take it anymore. On the heels of another heated role - Marc, in Yasmina Reza's Art, at Act II Playhouse - Braithwaite turns up the mania in this dark-edged Neil Simon nugget from the early 1970s, later produced as a film starring Jack Lemmon and Anne Bancroft.

Funny thing about the early 1970s: They look a whole lot like the early 2010s. Sure, Manhattan might be cleaner and safer these days, but America's economic troubles and job prospects appear to have come full circle. A middle-aged man on the verge of a nervous breakdown, Braithwaite's Mel Edison frets and fumes, about the indignities of city living, incivility of his neighbors, uncertainty of remaining employed, until Mary Carpenter's levelheaded Edna Edison becomes aware that her life is about to veer into uncharted territory.

The trouble with both the piece and the production is its blackly comic tone, which, once established, also veers off course, colliding with a Neil Simon comedy in Act 2, filled with quirky relatives and a side of schmaltz. And though its subject matter is relevant, it's still tied to its era by its disdain for women, working or otherwise. Mel can't stand the "fat old broad" at the unemployment office, Edna endures Mel's diatribes with the patience of her contemporaries over in Stepford, Conn., and of Mel's four siblings, older brother Harry (Robb Hutter), and three older widowed sisters, only Harry is treated as a human being rather than a joke.

Perhaps this issue led director Tom Quinn, with set designer Justin Couchara and costumer Mary Ann Swords-Greene, to hew so closely to the show's period elements. It's all there, from Quinn's Norman Lear-style sitcom direction (presentational, with punchline pauses suited to a laugh track) to stoneware pottery, to polyester pantsuits and floppy neck-bows. Carpenter, despite being saddled with some sartorial punchlines of her own, carries the role with dignity, a solid straight man to Braithwaite's unleashed neuroses.

As a period piece, the production works fine, even if Quinn follows Simon in losing tight grip of the material with the Weird Sisters' arrival.

As a piece of theater that deserves to be revived and mined for its pertinent messages, it falls short; the dark side of contemporary life is probably best represented without the narrative equivalent of a klieg light.


The Prisoner of Second Avenue

Through July 16 at Montgomery Theater, 124 Main St., Souderton. Tickets: $23-$35. Information: 215-723-9984 or www. MontgomeryTheater.org.


Follow Wendy Rosenfield on Twitter at #philastage.

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