thu 25/07/2024

The Prisoner of Second Avenue, Vaudeville Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

The Prisoner of Second Avenue, Vaudeville Theatre

The Prisoner of Second Avenue, Vaudeville Theatre

Jeff Goldblum and Mercedes Ruehl shine in a timely revival of Neil Simon's 1971 comedy

Crisis mismanagement: Jeff Goldblum and Mercedes Ruehl

Jeff Goldblum is a big guy, 6'4" tall to be precise, and, though his character inhabits an improbably spacious, high-ceilinged New York apartment, he roves around it like a crazy caged animal in this intensely athletic and entertaining revival of Neil Simon's disturbing 1971 comedy.

There's an unmissable topicality to the theme - the cataclysmic effect of redundancy on a high-earning executive - and, while the production doesn't underline this or update the story, it comes up looking as fresh as paint - fresher, certainly, than the overpriced, sweaty, crumbling hellhole where the action is entirely set.

In this tarnished cage on the Upper East Side (Rob Howell's production design nails the full grimness of beige, spindly-legged early 1970s interiors), against the backdrop of a midsummer heatwave, Mel Edison, 47, is losing his cool, his job and, imminently, his mind. An Everyman from the disaffected middle-classes, he rails against the kaput air conditioning, the leaky toilet, the party-girl Lufthansa air hostesses in the adjoining apartment and the iniquity of the universe at large.

Experiments show that mice can get... cancer (Mel can barely bring himself to mutter the dreaded c-word) when fed Graham crackers, he has already spent thousands of dollars on psychoanalysis, only to have the shrink commit the ultimate betrayal of dying on him and cod television newsflashes screened between the acts paint an image of a city crumbing into tragi-comical chaos. Even the anchorman gets mugged.

In the early 1970s, New York was blighted by crime, while the nation lived under the cloud of the Vietnam War, the political assassinations of the Sixties and the gathering recession; Watergate, of course, was just around the corner. In cinema, this period inspired a magnificent suite of melancholy conspiracy thrillers, from Chinatown to The Parallax View, and Simon's play looks very much now like a theatrical manifestation of that same Zeitgeist - one which, it goes without saying, bites just as hard today. "Nothing is safe any more," its characters fret. They thought America was such a strong country, but - and if the play has a moral, it is this - self-help rules when the crunch comes, you can only count on your own resources.

As the weeks pass, Mel descends into deeper paranoia: they (he's not sure quite who) are plotting to take over: it must be true because he heard it on the radio. This could be played as ultra-neurosis- as Jack Lemmon did in the 1975 screen version - but Goldblum, who's already a little bit, well, out there to begin with (check him out in the trailer for the show below) takes the character right to the outer fringes of weirdness.

Prisoner offers a rare chance to catch two American actors at the top of their game. Goldblum's sole previous West End appearance was opposite Kevin Spacey in the Old Vic's acclaimed production of Speed-the-Plow, while Mercedes Ruehl makes her very welcome London debut as his peppy, can-do wife who, as the play proceeds, turns manic as she starts to crack under the strain of becoming the family breadwinner. Simon is extremely sharp at charting the couple's shifting dynamic as each in turn takes the helm to guide them through the crisis.

In essence a two-hander, Prisoner lurches into a different gear late in the game as the curtain rises to discover the apartment minus Goldblum and Ruehl and plus four people we're clapping our eyes on for the first time: Mel's brother and three sisters, who suddenly unveil a back story about his childhood and develop the play's self-help theme. The scene is often seen as a structural faultline and Terry Johnson's otherwise tightly controlled production for the Old Vic doesn't paper over the cracks. The actors struggle to bring their underdrawn characters alive and credibility isn't helped by the fact that Goldblum looks (and indeed, at 57, is) a bit too old for the role. Towering over his stage siblings he neither resembles them physically nor comes across as the supposed baby of the family.

Still, the success of the play depends on the chemistry between its leads and here Goldblum and Ruehl establish a lovely, warm rapport, with a hint of sexual frisson and an energy that extends to the curtain call.

By the end, as the first snowflakes of winter fall, a resolution of sorts is achieved, which is not to say that this is a sentimental feel-good piece: it's surely not by coincidence that the poster, which depicts the couple side by side staring balefully as Goldblum brandishes a shovel, seems designed as a modern urban variant of Grant Wood's eerie, iconic American Gothic. The battle, most definitely, continues.


Jeff was his usual monotone self, he acts in the same style much of the time, even when he's supposed to be on an emotional roller coaster. People react differently it's true, but the character Mel was just Jeff's usual self. He was obviously nervous in the first half, which is understandable, but he seemed restrained and excuse the word but 'staged' throughout, perhaps film editing helps when on the big screen because he doesn't seem like he's feeling the part on the stage, more acting it - which he is, but wasn't good at the illusion. Mercedes, Mel's wife Edna, carried the whole show, she seemed comfortable in her role and the gags didn't seem forced from her. The rest of the small cast and usage of the single set were well incorporated even though their dialogue was a bit tiresome, but I suppose that illustrates how it is to deal with them. The news footage in between scenes was clever and sardonic. The play is well timed due to the economic climate, but then again - it could have been relevant throughout most decades. It was well scripted, the audience liked the jokes and the funny ending but that was it really - a superficial look at serious issues with a nonsensical issue. I'm not sure if the original was supposed to be light hearted? People can indeed deal with trauma with laughter and surely many an audience member appreciates that, I'm not saying it had to be dour but I think it was too 'easy', like just before Mel completely broke down he became a conspiracy buff, which is an easy mockery to make - you're paranoid, neurotic and so that must make you delusional and there's nothing at all interesting to research that's not filtered through the six o'clock news? Or, I know let's a make a summer camp!? Hmm, perhaps because he wasn't thinking straight, that idea was permissable? But no, it was Edna's idea and she was stressed with taking care of everything. Things like that can be explained away but in total, they created a lack of something in the play and the ending made it worse. It was just a happy ending in as much as they could be happy, but it didn't solve anything at all, they were back where they started.

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