At the theater: HART's 'The Prisoner of Second Ave.' is real life on stage

By Mary Ann Enloe | Mar 15, 2017
Photo by: Donated photo

It's hard not to like playwright Neil Simon, and HART actor and director Wanda Taylor knows her Neil Simon.

As she says in her Playbill director's notes: "One reason I love Neil Simon — this is the seventh Simon play I have directed at HART — is that he so capably wraps blankets of wry humor around very serious themes."

"The Prisoner of Second Avenue" opened on Broadway in 1971, but is eerily topical today. It's real life, warts and all, and you know the characters.

If your home was like mine, where the wife/mother smoothed troubled waters and kept everything and everyone on an even keel, you'll recognize Mel's wife Edna when she says, "Mel, I know when something's wrong. Something's wrong. Just tell me what's wrong because I know when something's wrong."

Edna is played brilliantly by HART veteran Lyn Donley. In a role far more substantive than Anne Bancroft's in the 1975 Jack Lemmon film, you'll hang onto Donley's every word and you'll laugh.

Donley's timing is down to the second. Her cadence is the way people talk. Edna is an attractive middle-aged upper-middle-class lady-who-lunches resident of a Manhattan high-rise on Second Avenue, and her successful husband, Mel, just lost his job--he and co-workers victims of downsizing before downsizing was a word.

The crux of it is that Mel has a nervous breakdown. Now, nervous breakdowns aren't funny. But Mel's is, as is Edna's reaction to it. To his credit, Stephen Gonya plays Mel with the anger and confusion Neil Simon probably had in mind when he wrote the play.

Jack Lemmon's Mel in the film role came across as a wimpy hypochondriac. Not so, Gonya. When dogs bark below on the street, he yells. When stewardesses are heard through thin walls partying in the apartment next door, he yells. When Manhattan has one of its infamous summer garbage strikes, he yells.

Then his three sisters and a brother come to 'help' him. Suzanne Tinsley, Leslie Lang and Jan Welch remind me of my daddy's three sisters—successful, strong-willed women who argue a lot.

Suzanne Tinsley, who appeared in leading parts on local stages before there was a HART, has eased into rich character roles like butter into boiling fudge, she's Pearl, and you'll know Pearl. You'll know Welch's Pauline and Lang's Jessica, too.  Most families have at least one.

And then there is brother Harry, who is supposed to be played by Scott Edward. But Scott Edward had the flu opening night. What does one do? Well, if you're HART, the play's female director, Wanda Taylor, steps in at the last minute and plays Harry.

HART Executive Director Stephen Lloyd explained to the audience before the show that Taylor would be playing the role "on book" which meant she'd be reading from the script. Mel's siblings don't come on stage until late in the production, but it made absolutely no difference that Wanda Taylor was a different gender named Harry. And she rarely looked at her script. That's acting.

In a nutshell, HART's "The Prisoner of Second Avenue," presented in the intimate Feichter Studio (one of my favorite venues), is just the ticket for the waning nights of winter.  You won't see a better ensemble cast anywhere, and you'll grin, giggle and guffaw. Get thee there. You'll be glad you did.