Misery Loves Company In Academy's 'Prisoner Of Second Avenue'

By: Ellen Petry Whalen

Ellen Birmingham and Geoff Newton in “The Prisoner of Second Avenue” at the Academy of Performing Arts. MICHAEL/SUZ KARCHMER PHOTO

Prolific American playwright Neil Simon is turning 90, and the Academy of Performing Arts is celebrating him with their next two productions — “The Prisoner of Second Avenue” and “The Sunshine Boys.”

“The Prisoner of Second Avenue” is one of Simon’s lesser produced plays (he’s written over 30). It opened on Broadway in 1971, starring Peter Falk and Lee Grant. In 1975, it became a film featuring Jack Lemmon and Anne Bancroft.

The two-and-a-half-hour comedy opens in New York City, with an anxious Mel Edison unable to sleep. His unbelievably patient wife, Edna, tries to calm him down. Mel complains about the heatwave outside and his bedroom that is freezing. Their Second Avenue apartment is too noisy, between the neighbors and the street sounds, and a garbage strike compounds the situation. After their apartment is robbed, Mel finally admits he’s been downsized, after 22 years at his advertising agency. Ultimately, the first act ends with Mel having a nervous breakdown.

The pace and the mood picks up in the second act when Mel’s family visits, wanting to help Edna with the mounting medical bills. The siblings can’t agree on how much money they should loan to Edna, and the entertaining visit doesn’t end well.

As Mel, Geof Newton visibly transforms himself from scene to scene, ranging from neurotic and paranoid to being numbed by sedatives. Newton’s tension is palpable. He’s so tightly wound in the first act that it’s oddly calming, while at the same time mildly disturbing, to see him walking in a daze.

Ellen Birmingham plays the saintly Edna, who puts up with far too much from her depressed husband. She’s like an adult Pollyanna, never losing faith in Mel and always looking on the bright side. As the somewhat two-dimensional 1970s housewife, Birmingham brings a ray of sunshine into Mel’s dismal life.

Playing Mel’s three sisters, Racine Oxtoby, Susanna Creel and Heidi Moeykens add levity to the show, with their comical expressions, funny New York accents, and their subtle attempts at reining in their older brother Harry’s generous nature. Wisely, they don’t want to commit to supporting Mel for an unforeseen amount of time, but with a nod to the times, when women weren’t considered financially savvy, they defer to Harry’s “business sense,” mostly out of guilt.

Jefferson C. Post gives the play a jolt in the arm with his take-charge attitude as Mel’s brother, Harry. He’s so revved up, one wonders if Harry’s not far from his own breakdown, or at the very least a heart attack. Post readily plays up how, as the oldest in the family, Harry was not babied like Mel, humorously insisting no one kissed him past the age of seven.

Introducing the play, director Peter Earle encapsulates the show by saying, “You get to revel in someone else’s misery.” If you’re a Neil Simon fan, don’t forget that the “Sunshine Boys" are up next at the Academy.


The Prisoner of Second Avenue

At The Academy of Performing Arts, 120 Main St., Orleans

Through Sept. 24

Information and reservations: Call 508-255-1963