“Something is happening to me, I’m losing control. I can’t handle things any more. … I’m slipping and I’m scared.” Neil Simon’s 1971 “The Prisoner of Second Avenue” is played strictly in period at the El Portal, and rightly so. Yet nothing could be more contemporary than this cry from the heart of ad man Mel Edison (Jason Alexander), obsessed, oppressed and obsolete at 47. Glenn Casale’s revival is consistently watchable thanks to the thoughtful teamwork of Alexander and Gina Hecht, whose dream project this evidently was.
Mel is a world-class complainer, but Alexander shrewdly sees his angst as a quantum leap beyond George Costanza yammering about getting stiffed on the free bread by the Soup Nazi. The troubles on the Edison plate are substantive: a lack of privacy and civility; pasteboard walls and appalling climate control; an apartment burglary on the very day Mel is laid off after 22 years.
Vintage Simon makes all this grief both real and piercingly funny, but only when a thesp charts the proper emotional arc from frenzy into anxiety and full-out breakdown – and back again. Crying “I’m not through with my life yet! I still have value, I still have worth!.” Alexander turns a poor schmo into everyman with believability and empathy.
Offered less juicy material as Mel’s sounding board, Hecht matches him step for step, subtly following him down distressed pathways of her own.
As Mel’s skewed siblings swooping down mid-crisis, Ron Orbach, Annie Korzen, Deedee Rescher and Carole Ita White work strongly in tandem, though all strain as if hoping to make the most of too little stage time. Greater ease mandated by Casale might double the laughs they already garner. Tech credits and blocking are uniformly pro.
Simon was never able to satisfyingly wrap up his story, which dribbles away in a silly, quixotic revenge attempt on the neighbors. Yet when the Edisons are played as affectingly as they are here, it’s rather poignant to leave these prisoners of Second Avenue in apartment limbo, facing a life sentence with no possibility of parole.