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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

The Prisoner of Second Avenue at ACT Theatre Offers Second-Rate Simon, First Rate Cast

Prisoner of Second Avenue
John Aylward, Cynthia Lauren Tewes, Kimberly King, and Julie Briskman
The play's still okay, but it's the cast and direction that's the thing in ACT Theatre's classy production of The Prisoner of Second Avenue, directed by stalwart former Intiman Theatre artistic director Warner Shook. The Simon play (later a Jack Lemmon/Anne Bancroft film vehicle) ran the better part of two seasons on Broadway during 1971-73, took home Tony awards for Featured Actor (Vincent Gardenia) and Director (Mike Nichols), and was praised for being the most successful instance to date of Simon melding his trademark one-liners with darker undercurrents, as he explored the increasingly grim reality of life in Upper East Side Manhattan of the era. The laughs hold up, but it takes a stellar cast directed by the virtuoso Shook to disguise the dated aspects of the script, and Simon straining to find a mix between yucks and a pathos he would move toward much more successfully with latter day hits such as Lost in Yonkers and Broadway Bound.

Simon's protagonist Mel Edison and devoted wife Edna are up against more than a sweltering summer heat wave. Mel loses his job, forcing Edna to become the family breadwinner. Mel goes weeks without another job in sight and starts to unravel, until he is finally driven over the edge when a pissed off upstairs neighbor douses him with water as he confronts him on his balcony. Mel has a nervous breakdown, and when his vociferous elder siblings show up to show support and offer financial backup to Mel and Edna, they succeed only in squabbling and drive Edna to the brink of her own breakdown. Mel comes home and seems on steadier footing, and then Edna's job goes away when her company goes bankrupt. Simon's wrap-up is admittedly darkly funny, but hardly promises the Edison's woes are over.

R. Hamilton Wright as Mel invests the main character with a sympathetic undercurrent when his rants and unraveling behavior make it harder for us to root for him. Wright couldn't ask for a better stage spouse or acting partner than stalwart Seattle funny lady Anne Allgood, who is delicious whether playing straight-woman, or seizing her own laughs and making us roar at them. The quartet of Edison siblings don't show till mid-act two, but when they are played by the blue chip likes John Aylward, Julie Briskman, Kimberly King and Cynthia Lauren Tewes, you can bet that the laughs are wall to wall. Briskman is marvelous as weepy Jessie, and King is gut-busting as the increasingly confused Pearl. Aylward, who spends much of his time stealing scenes in nighttime network television appearances, makes this infrequent return to the boards in Seattle a consummate pleasure, as the gruff but soft-centered eldest sibling Harry, and Cynthia Lauren Tewes as the oy so Jewish sister Pauline is a riotous marvel, employing all the comic timing she picked up working with the likes of comedy vets Gavin McLeod and Bernie Kopell, with whom she co-starred in TV's "Love Boat."

Matthew Smucker hits another homerun with his set design of the Edison's oh-so-seventies apartment, and Rick Paulson lights it expertly, while Deb Trout's costumes perfectly capture the time and place. Also, a deserved nod to a series of cameo faux newscasts anchored by ACT artistic director Kurt Beattie, tongue firmly in cheek.

The Prisoner of Second Avenue runs through May 29 at ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle; $15-$55 (206-292-7676 or www.acttheatre.org).


Photo: Chris Bennion

See the list of this season's theatre offerings in the Seattle area.



- David Edward Hughes



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