Neil Simon is clearly the most popular American playwright in the last half of the 20th century. With a career that began writing comedy sketches for tv in the ‘50’s, he turned to playwriting and created over 30 plays that ran on Broadway and almost as many screenplays, usually from adaptations from his plays. Full of gags and one liners, the plays also had a social significance reflecting the times. One of those, “Prisoner of Second Avenue,” written in 1971, now graces the stage at Act II Playhouse in Ambler.
Mel Edison, 47, has a successful job, a lovely New York apartment, two kids in college, and a loving supporting wife, when things fall apart. His home is no longer a haven- the toilet doesn’t work, the air conditioning overcools, the street noise is unbearable, and the neighbors are noisy. On top of that, he’s just been burglarized- he’s lost everything from his tv and his liquors to his suits. He becomes a prisoner in his own home. On top of that, he’s just lost his job. His becomes angry. He becomes paranoid, he becomes depressed. He has a nervous breakdown. But Simon’s play is not a depressing one. It is full of jokes and the audience is laughing constantly at Mel’s responses to everything.
Director Tom Teti has assembled an outstanding cast led by Tony Braithwaite and Sabrina Profitt as the beleaguered man and his wife. They are the only two characters in the first act. But then, Mel’s siblings arrive in the second act to try some sort of intervention. Three sisters and a brother, and they are a riot. Zinger after zinger as they assess the situation. They care for their brother but also, try to figure out what they can and will do to assist, based on the cost of the treatment he may need.
Twenty-two years later, Simon wrote a play, “Laughter on the 23rd Floor.” This one might easily have been called Laughter on the 14th Floor.” Still, underneath all that laughter is a seriousness that is always present and gives his plays the power that propels it beyond a simple sitcom mentality. There are constant audio reports of the crime wave that is sweeping New York.
There are a few times when the depth is lost in the funny jokes. But that is Simon’s style and it is minor. If there is one adjustment to consider, I would tone down Mel’s volume a notch to let us see what is inside him a bit more. But Braithewaite is one of the finest actors around, so good that I didn’t even mind his not playing the show without a New York accent. He pulls off every role I’ve ever seen him perform. And with the rest of the ensemble, they do a wonderful job in bringing this Neil Simon classic to the stage.
“Prisoner of Second Avenue” at Act II Playhouse, 56, E. Butler Ave., Ambler, PA 19002, 215-654-0200, www.act2.org. Thru Sept. 25, 2022.