The Prisoner of Second Avenue @ Vaudeville Theatre, London

The Prisoner of Second Avenue

The Prisoner of Second Avenue

• cast includes Jeff Goldblum, Mercedes Ruehl

• directed by Terry Johnson

Stripped back to its bones, the story of Neil Simon’s 1971 comedy sounds quite timely: this is, after all, a play about economic anxiety and the psychological consequences of unemployment. But the years have not been kind to it and what may once have been considered darkly comic edgy even now feels timid, simplistic and, crucially, not all that funny.

Not that Jeff Goldblum seems to notice or care. He radiates energy, he curls his long limbs around invisible obstacles, he boots sofa cushions into the stratosphere (well, the lighting rig), and hurls things to floor with disdain; in short, he wrings every last laugh he can from the text and does a great deal to compensate for what is a rather tired and flat production.

Goldblum was last seen on the London stage in 2008 when he teamed up with Kevin Spacey for the Old Vics well-received revival of David Mamets Speed the Plow; its to the Old Vic that hes returning, this time sans-Spacey, for their first foray into the West End.

His co-star here is Mercedes Reuhl, who won a Tony for her role in Simons Lost in Yonkers (a production in which Spacey also starred). Goldblum and Ruehl play the Mel and Edna Edison, a middle-aged, married couple who live in a stuffy fourteenth floor apartment on the Upper East Side. Their air-con is on the fritz, theres a crack in the wall and the neighbours are noisy and prone to banging on the wall. To cap things off, Edna leaves the door unlocked when she pops out to the shops and their apartment is promptly robbed. The crooks take everything of worth, even the Valium.

This does not come at a good time for the Edisons as Mel, a 47 year old advertising executive is about to lose his job. His dismissal pitches him into depression; he becomes paranoiac and reclusive, skulking around the house in his dressing gown, snapping at Edna and muttering about conspiracies. Without a job, he loses his sense of himself and his apartment becomes his enemy, penning him in, pushing him closer to the edge of a breakdown. An increasingly alarmed Edna eventually decides he needs to get help.

In the decades since the play was first staged, the subject matter has lost some (if perhaps not all) of its stigma and people are on the whole better informed about mental health issues. Simons play feels rather superficial and hesitant in its handling of Mels collapse. Goldblums endearing performance, while engaging and lively, detracts from the plays more serious side. Ruehl is a good foil for Goldblums energy and they do convince as a couple whove been together for over two decades, but its a rather thin role and she spends much of her time on stage displaying a mixture of exasperation and affection.

Midway through the second half Simon shakes things up a little, turning what is essentially a two-hander into an ensemble piece with the arrival of Mels sisters and his older, more business-minded brother. This scene doesnt add much to the play, other to point out that Mel is the youngest of five it does however lead to a reasonably funny and touching scene between Mel and his brother, Harry, played by Linal Haft.

Director Terry Johnsons production is rather dusty and old-fashioned and far too reliant on Goldblums charisma to coast it over the numerous lulls and tonal glitches. There are a couple of nicely constructed moments (one should never underestimate the humour value of someone getting doused by a bucket of water) but basically this is only worth seeing for the strong performances of the two leads.

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