|Peter Falk, Lee Grant.|
THE PRISONER OF SECOND AVENUE [Comedy/Marriage] A: Neil Simon; D: Mike Nichols; S: Richard Sylbert; C: Anthea Sylbert; L: Tharon Musser; P: Saint-Subber; T: Eugene O’Neill Theatre; 11/11/71-9/29/73 (788)
|Lee Grant, Peter Falk.|
A smash hit domestic comedy from comic playwriting kingpin Neil Simon that ran for close to two years and provided Peter Falk with a great role in one of his rare Broadway performances.
Mel Edison (Falk) is a 47-year-old advertising executive living in an Upper East Side high-rise on Second Avenue with his wife, Edna (Lee Grant). Here he encounters a mélange of urban headaches, from air and noise pollution to unemployment to faulty plumbing to burglaries to apartment house construction defects to drug addiction to psychiatry to the impositions of unfriendly neighbors. The threats from Mel’s environment put increasing pressure on him until he becomes truly alienated from his surroundings and approaches a nervous breakdown. There is no feasible escape, suggests the playwright, who underlines his comic exaggerations with a sense of true despair.
Mel loses his job in Act One, remains home while his wife works in Act Two, and confronts his brother (Vincent Gardenia) and three wealthy sisters (Florence Stanley, Tresa Hughes, and Dena Dietrich) over his regressive mental state in Act Three. Then Edna informs him that she, too, has been fired.
|Dena Dietrich, Tresa Hughes, Florence Stanley, Vincent Gardenia, Peter Falk.|
The critics laughed with tear-producing gusto at all the jokes, commenting that The Prisoner of Second Avenue may well have been Simon’s most hilarious gag fest yet. The sense of angst at its heart, however, revealed that the comedy had a considerably serious soul. There was frequent reference by the reviewers to the play’s structural problems, its lack of fully realized characters, and its stretching the truth to inspire laughs. This “gloriously funny play,” declared Clive Barnes, was “paper thin,” displayed “no real development or conclusion, but concentrates on revealing comic attitudes to trivial despair.” “[O]ften the poverty of the writing reminds you of just how hackneyed these matters are,” responded Julius Novick. There was a “relative vacuum” here, thought Walter Kerr, while Henry Hewes and John Simon pointed to the flatness of the author’s characters amid their amusingly depicted issues.
The exceptionally well-played production benefitted from Mike Nichols’s adroit, energetic, comically inventive staging, and wonderful performances by the entire company. Clive Barnes left this record of the leads: “Peter Falk, looking like an amiable denizen of the Central Park Zoo who had been given the wrong keeper, is a delight as the battered Mel, full of angst and anguish and definitively put‐down by the zeitgeist. . . . [H]is performance seems most carefully balanced between a suggestion that life is too much for him and one that he is too little for life. . . . Lee Grant is sweet and potent, caring for her husband through the strange emasculation of unemployment and standing back—to—back with him against the slings and arrows of our outrageous city. With his controlled misery Vincent Gardenia is admirable as Mel’s brother.”
|Dena Dietrich, Florence Stanley, Tresa Hughes, Vincent Gardenia.|
In her autobiography, I Said Yes to Everything, Lee Grant, who had moved from her red-hot movie career in Los Angeles to do the play, recalls working with Nichols and Falk:
Mike was especially sensitive in his preparation, molding me without my even knowing it, for what was essentially a two-character play. . . . After our first reading, Mike turned to me: "You're the gardener; he's the flower." The blood drained out of me. I had not rented the Red House for a year, I had not moved to a strange apartment, I had not put Dinah in the New Lincoln School to come o Broadway as the gardener,I was familiar with being a gardener, as were all the wives at 444 Central Park West.We'd been good gardeners. Truly concerned with our husbands. Endlessly worried and wordless. Money, bills, rent, our husbands' states of mind.But I was a leading lady now. I'd dreamed I'd return to Broadway in a smash hit and be rediscovered and celebrated. I'd come to be the flower.But in a split instant, I recognized my fate and accepted it. Two actors cannot have nervous breakdowns on the same stage. Peter was the flower. I had no choiceIn rehearsal, Mike Nichols had us lie on a cot together in the dark backstage and go over and over our lines with a girl prompter sitting on a chair at the head of the bed.It was wonderful direction. Peter and I breathing our lines to each other became comfortable lying so close together. Relaxing into each other like old friends. Like husband and wife. Mike forced us to trust each other totally. The prompter kept us from getting self-conscious about our bodies and intimacy.Peter breathed in and I breathed out.
The Prisoner of Second Avenue was nominated for a Tony as Best Play, while Gardenia won for Best Supporting Actor and Nichols for Best Director. Gardenia also garnered the Supporting Actor nod in Variety’s then annual poll.