While Neil Simon may have been built for Broadway, the playwright’s work now also seems an excellent fit for regional theater. With a Simon work, you pretty much know what you’re getting — the trick is in delivering the goods. In Berkshire Theater Festival’s staging of “The Prisoner of Second Avenue,” helmer Warner Shook and his six actors more than just revive this melancholy comedy: They breathe new life into the play with an ensemble collaboration that feels relevant, timely and surprisingly sweet.
“Prisoner” premiered on Broadway in 1971 with Peter Falk and Lee Grant originating the roles of Mel and Edna Edison, a middle-aged, middle-class couple living on New York’s Upper East Side and being worn down by city life. It ran for nearly two years; a 1975 film adaptation starred Jack Lemmon and Anne Bancroft.
Surprisingly — or maybe not, given today’s similar economic climate — very little about the rather straightforward setup feels dated. The entire play takes place inside a Second Avenue apartment (nicely rendered here by Scott Bradley, complete with terrace and view of other highrises) belonging to Mel (Stephen DeRosa) and Edna (Veanne Cox). Mel is a 47-year-old advertising executive about to lose his job (and mind), while Edna tries to guide them through the crisis. Most of the play takes place during a heat wave in a summer that includes a garbage strike, a robbery, Edna having to find a job and Mel’s eventual nervous breakdown.
Mel’s older brother and three widowed sisters arrive somewhat unexpectedly (for the audience as well) in the second act to discuss how they may help the troubled couple. Julian Gamble as Harry, Jeanne Paulsen as Pauline, Alice Playten as Pearl and Denny Dillon as Jessie all make comedic contributions, with especially strong work from Gamble. (Still, the arrival of so many siblings so late, only to be used so sparingly, is the one structural oddity in the piece, and it’s particularly noticeable given the talent of this veteran group.)
The overlap of themes between “Prisoner” and Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” has been widely noted. Both middle-aged Willy Loman and Mel are cast aside by an increasingly alienating world that abruptly has no further use for them. But Simon knows where his bread is buttered, and whenever the play starts to tip too far toward the serious, he lightens the mood with one of his hilarious patented zingers that show no sign of expiring shelf-life.
Along with the playwright, the real comedic heavy lifting here is done (seemingly effortlessly) by the superb Cox, whose Edna is the perfect combination of supportive, loving and hysterical wife. Watching her progress ever closer to her own breakdown as Mel’s condition improves, and seeing Cox hit all the right emotional and comic notes, is reward enough; but the couple’s sweet chemistry is also a revelation. That element allows “Prisoner” to make a break for something more resonant and moving, reminding us once again that there was often more going on in a Neil Simon play than simply making us laugh.