‘Prisoner of Second Avenue’ — a classic with modern relevance

By November 1, 2010

WHERE ARE YOU GOING WITH THAT SHOVEL? Stephen Kauffman and Eileen Beaver as Mel and Edna Edison.

BROTHER AND SISTERS — Eddison's siblings, played by John Heinen, Connie Mockenhaupt, Hazel Johnson and Lauren Olsen, discuss what to do about their brother's deteriorating emotional condition. Photo courtesy of Allen Schmeltz.

When Neil Simon’s 1971 classic play, “Prisoner of Second Avenue,” premiered on Broadway it captivated fans with its exploration of the theme of unemployment during middle age. The tightrope walk between comedy and drama reached out to a nation rocked by crises in the gas and steel industries.

In our own time when working people of all ages are reeling from the fear of economic uncertainty, it couldn’t be more appropriate that Folsom’s Sutter Street Theatre would stage a revival of the play.

“The Prisoner of Second Avenue” is the story of Mel Edison, a middle-aged executive who loses his job after working for the same company for decades. He and his wife, Edna, succumb to frustration compounded by the small, inner city apartment they inhabit (it’s plagued with issues like uncooperative plumbing and an air conditioner that quits just as the summer heatwave hits).

The two are forced to give up certain comforts and adapt to city life, digging for exact change for bus fare and playing reluctant hosts to a mid-day, home invasion robbery. A seemingly endless garbage strike and noisy neighbors add stress to their already chaotic lives.

WHERE ARE YOU GOING WITH THAT SHOVEL? Stephen Kauffman and Eileen Beaver as Mel and Edna Edison.

Edna takes a part-time job of her own to help make ends meet, but soon discovers that spending most of her adult life as a homemaker hasn’t exactly honed her to join the work force. The stress of trying to adapt to a new lifestyle takes its toll on Mel, who ends up on the brink of insanity as the play progresses.

Mel’s successful brother, Harry, and several sisters eventually come to his assistance, desperately playing novice psychiatrists to their mentally-deteriorating brother.

“Prisoner of Second Avenue’s” original Broadway premier starred Peter Falk and Lee Grant as the Mel and Edna Edison. Jack Lemmon and Anne Bancroft famously played the roles in the 1975 film adaptation.

The play is currently running on Broadway as a revival starring Jeff Goldblum and Mercedes Ruhl.

Janelle Kauffman is directing Sutter Street’s production, which stars Stephen Kauffman as Mel Edison. Although the play lists Mel’s age at 47, the older Kauffman could potentially cut a more convincing figure by today’s standards as an aging employee possibly squeezed out by younger, cheaper talent.

“Prisoner on Second Avenue” opens Friday and runs through Nov. 21. Tickets range in price from $15 to $23 and are available by calling (916) 353-1001. Visit sutterstreettheatre.com for more information.

Andy Laughlin


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