Theater review: ‘The Prisoner of Second Avenue’ at the El Portal Theatre
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Never underestimate the value of a good snow shovel in the city. That’s the drift of “The Prisoner of Second Avenue,” now in revival with Jason Alexander at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood.
The “Seinfeld” star moves across Central Park to the Upper East Side in Neil Simon’s wobbly 1971 comedy of urban anxiety. Forget New Jersey jokes--in the early ‘70s, Manhattan itself is a pit: garbage strikes, spiraling crime, and a recession taking nasty bites out of the middle class. On the 18th floor of an 88th Street high rise, Mel (Alexander) and Edna (Gina Hecht) battle irritating neighbors and an unreliable air conditioner with good-natured kvetch. But when Mel loses his job, life slides into something queasily uncertain, where sanity and the next meal can no longer be taken for granted.
Sound familiar? Except for the burnt-orange pillows on Stephen Gifford’s living room set, you’d never know this play was 40 years old. But we’re here for the laughs, not the sociology, and Alexander has this role in the bag. “Seinfeld” lovers will relish the expert physical comedy the actor delivers in this otherwise straightforward production, briskly directed by Glenn Casale. The unexpected pleasure here is Hecht as Mel’s deeply capable wife. Managing disaster with a steady voice and a self-effacing solution, the actress grounds the play and gives Alexander the base on which to perform his comic pirouettes.
You only wish these two pros had slightly better material. Sure, there are good bits about the two randy flight attendants next door and the decline of fresh baked bread. But Simon, usually the diligent craftsman, wanders all over the place, in tone and narrative focus. The play isn’t quite absurdist, but it’s Ionesco adjacent.
“Prisoner” lurches into a different mode entirely when Mel’s family shows up to offer succor. Harry, his successful but alienated older brother (Ron Orbach, excellent) and three grotesque sisters (Carole Ita White, Annie Korzen and Deedee Rescher) belong in a play of their own. Mel and Edna, beleaguered survivors clinging to the edge of the American Dream, deserve the stage to themselves. By giving them short shrift, Simon cheats them, and us.
“The Prisoner of Second Avenue” El Portal Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. No performance 2 p.m. Wednesday, May 4; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. performance added Tuesday, May 3. Ends May 15. $45-$55. Contact: www.elportaltheatre.com or (866) 811-4111 or (818) 508-4200. Running time: 2 hours.