What happened? Did everybody get to the end of the read-through and realize it wasn’t funny? Only that can explain the dismaying overplaying in Terry Johnson’s clumsy revival of Neil Simon’s “The Prisoner of Second Avenue.” Stargazers may be satisfied by the sight of Jeff Goldblum and Mercedes Ruehl, but there’s precious little else to offer.
This production, the inaugural West End venture by Kevin Spacey’s Old Vic Theater, points to the fact that as artistic director Spacey has proved better at picking roles than plays. “Speed-the-Plow,” his last stage venture with Goldblum, allowed for spectacular perfs by both men disguising the fact that the play is second-rate, On the page, the title-role of this 1971 play looks promising. On stage, however, it’s wholly undermined by inert dramaturgy.
Rangy, attack-ready Goldblum is not a good fit for permanently worried advertising executive Mel, who kvetches about his apartment, his neighbors, his job, his life. From the get-go, Goldblum is more furious than neurotic, a mood that strips the laughter off a comedy about a mental crack-up that needs all the laughs it can get.
Simon was consciously attempting a more downbeat tone than his trademark sitcom perkiness. Mel and his long-suffering wife, Edna (Ruehl), are buffeted by (unseen) uncaring neighbors. He loses his job and, for a scene or two, his mind.
What Simon failed to do was tether character-study to drama. There are incidents, but neither sustained action nor tension. Their (unnecessarily drab) apartment is burgled to add to Mel’s gloom, but it leads nowhere. Worse, auds don’t see it happen. It occurs in a gap between scenes, a stage-management nightmare covered by a poorly presented, painfully unfunny video newscast projected on the frontcloth.
Nor does it help that both leads are too old. Goldblum flails about yelling at least four times “But I’m 47 years old!” which sounds increasingly weak when we know him to be a decade older.
Like an actor overcompensating for being too old to play Hamlet, he overemphasizes everything, stopping mid-line for supposedly comic effect. Ruehl also opts for exaggeration, possibly in an attempt to tame him. But there’s a rhythm to Simon’s quick-fire dialogue that this style of playing kills stone dead.
As his revival of “La Cage aux Folles” proves, director Johnson is better on smart conception than on sustaining tone. That he doesn’t have an ear for this kind of writing is underlined by the fact that when Mel’s three sisters appear, they each have accents from entirely different parts of America. The sole saving grace is Linal Haft as Mel’s businessman brother — calm, controlled and completely “on it.” Too bad he’s only onstage for about 20 minutes.