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Regional Reviews: New Jersey

The Prisoner of Second Avenue Attains Emotional Depth in Brilliant New Interpretation

Also see Bob's reviews of Intimate Apparel and Mack and Mabel

Jeffrey Farber, Allen Lewis Rickman, Liz Zazzi, Deborah Guarino, Maria Brodeur and Susan Barrett
Likely, I hadn't seen Neil Simon's The Prisoner of Second Avenue since his Broadway debut in 1971. Furthermore, my memory of it principally consisted of Peter Falk comically complaining about having to jiggle the flush handle to stop the toilet from running in his pricey Manhattan apartment. Gosh, why would Hackettstown's Centenary Stage Company choose to open its lovely new theatre with a production of this silly, gag-laden comedy whose freshness date was clearly long past? Well Centenary surely knew something that I did not. For director Carl Wallnau has given us a deeply moving Prisoner of Second Avenue which, as funny as it surely is, is most memorable for the heartwrenching tears it evokes.

It is 1971, and New York City is in the midst of a breakdown, with ongoing fiscal, administrative, labor, crime and societal crises. This is all reflected on a personal level by the breakdown of likeable 47-year-old business executive Mel Edison. Edison is at the end of his tether, and making life miserable for himself and his wife, Edna. At first, Mel's seeming overreaction to the poor maintenance of their apartment, annoying neighbors, and a sanitation workers' strike is principally a basis for laughter. With the loss and feelings of violation attached to the burglary of their apartment, our emotional involvement with the Edisons begins to sneak up on us. By the time that Mel informs Edna that he, along with a large number of executive, sales and clerical employees have lost their jobs because of the financial collapse of his company, and that he has been roaming New York's streets and parks for days afraid and ashamed to tell her, our emotional involvement with these imperfect and vulnerable, decent, humanely comic, everyman New Yorkers is complete. Simon cleverly reaches out to additional strata when Mel sympathetically contemplates how devastated the operator of the coffee wagon had to be when he came to the company office the morning after the firings to find the customers whom he depended upon for his livelihood gone.

Allen Lewis Rickman is a perfect Mel. The humor of his increasingly off-center outbursts is carefully calibrated so that he never loses either our belief or our sympathy. There is a sweetness and likeability in Rickman's Mel which increasingly emerges as his situation and illness reduce him to helplessness. Whether it be a relative, friend or even yourself, you will recognize Rickman's Mel as someone in your life whom you care about.

Liz Zazzi's multidimensional performance embodies a myriad of characteristics which are in Simon's creation without being specifically spelled out. Her Edna is a rough at the edges, stylish woman whose good looks secured her marriage to her more educated and book smart husband. Content in her marriage, Edna has been a stay at home housewife and mother, but she now obtains a secretarial job as she is determined to provide her husband with her full support. Zazzi seems to be collaborating with author Neil Simon in bringing Edna to dimensional life.

With Mel at his nadir, he and Edna are treated by a visit from Mel's brother and three sisters (they complain that they haven't been invited in nine years). Mel was the baby of the family, adored, fussed over and spoiled (clearly to his detriment) by his three sisters. Brother Jerry, now a very successful business man who dutifully took on many burdens for his struggling family, never received their warmth and attention. Now, as they debate how and to what extent they will help their disturbed brother, their childhood grievances with one another remain a part of them. Although the sisters are not notably generous or likeable, there is enough pain, humor and even warmth in Simon's portrayal of the Edison siblings to fuel its own play. Jeffrey Farber, particularly in his scenes with Rickman, is warm and amusing. Susan Barrett, Maria Brodeur, and Deborah Guarino portray the sisters with the accuracy that Simon has drawn them. You may only know that they are truly not bad if you've known them in your own life.

The excellence of Carl Wallnau's unerringly tone-perfect, expertly paced production cannot be over praised. The design elements of his production are exceptional. Samina Vieth has designed an eye pleasing set which seamlessly combines realistic (the apartment) and stylized elements (the large cut out windows of surrounding buildings). Her evocative furnishings are dead on accurate for the period. The same is to said for the costumes of Julia Sharp. The pants outfit worn by Liz Zazzi is an important element in the definition of her Edna.

The play's zany final moments (despite the seriousness which may be inferred from them) are too comedic and play like the conclusion of a blackout sketch.

Although the current economic crisis gripping our nation may contribute a bit to its relevance to 2011 audiences, it should be noted that the details of the play closely tie it to the specific time in which it was written and first produced. However, 39 years after its debut, The Prisoner of Second Avenue is revealed to be a classic American play which illuminates our lives by finding the universality that is inherent in its specifically drawn characters. Centenary Stage Company's funny, deeply moving and richly satisfying production of it is well worth a destination trip.

The Prisoner of Second Avenue continues performances (Evenings: Thursday 7:30 pm; Friday and Saturday 8 pm/ Matinees: Wednesday 10/6; Thursday 10/7 & Sunday 2:30 pm) at Centenary Stage Company (Sitnik Theatre) through October 17 at the Lackland Center on the campus of Centenary College, 400 Jefferson Avenue, Hackettstown, New Jersey 07840. Box Office: 908-9794297; online:

The Prisoner of Second Avenue by Neil Simon; directed by Carl Wallnau

Mel Edison.........................Allen Lewis Rickman
Edna Edison.........................................Liz Zazzi
Jesse..........................................Maria Brodeur
Pearl............................................Susan Barrett
Pauline....................................Deborah Guarino
Harry...........................................Jeffrey Farber

Photo: Carl Wallnau

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- Bob Rendell

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