Neil Simon’s niche as Broadway’s king of comedy would have been secure if only for his nearly 50 produced plays. But his extraordinary run of hits over three decades made him the most wildly successful American playwright of the post-World War II era.
Over the last quarter-century, he slipped from that lofty perch. Attempted revivals of both his 1963 hit, Barefoot in the Park, and his more acclaimed Brighton Beach Memoirs foundered.
Mysteriously, whether through the punishing recent economics of mounting a straight play, the bad luck associated with individual productions (Plaza Suite, projected as a star vehicle for real-life couple Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker, closed before it could open because of the COVID-19 lockdown), or even the altered tastes of comedy-conscious fans, this former Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright had become the forgotten man of American theater by his death 2½ years ago.
At first glance, the best prospects for his resuscitated reputation might lie with two of his more acclaimed later works, Lost in Yonkers or the more autobiographical “Eugene Trilogy” (Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound). But another, further back in his career, presents a vehicle more relevant to the COVID-19 era.
The Prisoner of Second Avenue, which premiered 50 years ago this coming November on Broadway, marked a notable step in the evolution of the playwright. In the 1960s, while alternating between comedies and musicals, he had stuck to a format marked by nonstop one-liners, incorporating the style he honed as a TV comedy writer for Your Show of Shows and The Phil Silvers Show.
But with a new decade came a growing seriousness, first evidenced in The Gingerbread Lady, about an alcoholic actress. The Prisoner of Second Avenue dug deeper into this new seriocomic vein, uniting Simon’s keener interest in the decay he increasingly glimpsed in New York City with the travails of a middle-aged male suddenly made redundant at the office. Imagine a somewhat more comic Death of a Salesman, but for the white-collar set.
The play was brought back to my attention several months ago when I saw the 1975 film adaptation starring Jack Lemmon and Anne Bancroft (pictured) as, respectively, advertising exec Mel Edison and his concerned wife Edna (assuming the roles played originally on Broadway by Peter Falk and Lee Grant).
When I viewed it on the big screen, it made no lingering impression. Indeed, how much could a teenager always told his life was ahead of him understand an angst-ridden urban professional suddenly aware that half his career, if not more, is over?
Mel’s dilemma registers far more forcefully now. Today, so-called “mature workers” face similar issues: adapting to an office environment and job market increasingly inimical to the middle-aged.
“I’m gonna be 47 years old in January,” Mel complains in the first scene. “Forty-seven! They could get two twenty-three-and-a-half-year-old kids for half my money.”
That fear turns out to be all too prescient. Mel ends up unemployed, as have countless real-life counterparts in the last half-century. Age discrimination remains common even though it had been banned under federal law only a few years before Prisoner of Second Avenue premiered. It may be the most blithely practiced and most persistent form of discrimination left.
Unemployment plunges Mel headlong towards a nervous breakdown. “I don’t know where or who I am any more,” he confesses desperately. “I’m disappearing, Edna. I don’t need analysts, I need Lost and Found.”
Suddenly feeling superfluous, he putters around the apartment for most of the day in his pajamas, isolated save for one dangerous connection to the outside world: talk radio. “How many people you think listen to the radio at ten o’clock in the morning?” he informs Edna. “Everybody is working. But I heard it. And as sure as we’re standing here in the middle of the room, there’s a plot going on in this country.”
When Simon wrote his comedy-drama, Rush Limbaugh and his imitators had not yet reached nationwide audiences, but New York had its own progenitor of right-wing talk radio with Bob Grant—unnamed here, but, as he was already attracting local notoriety at WMCA, the probable inspiration for the paranoid delusions to which Mel is now susceptible. Now “open to channels of information twenty-four hours a day,” Mel is suddenly a stronger believer in “the social-economical-and-political-plot-to-undermine-the-working-classes-in-this-country.”
Simon foresaw the all-encompassing, even contradictory nature of the right-wing conspiracy theories more and more common these last three decades: “It’s not just me they’re after, Edna. They're after you, they’re after our kids, my sisters, every one of our friends. They're after the cops, they’re after the hippies, they’re after the government, they’re after the anarchists, They're after women's lib, the fags, the blacks, the whole military complex.”
“Who?” a bewildered Edna asks. “You mentioned everybody. There's no one left.”
As loving, understanding and resilient as Edna is, she finds it difficult not to pulled into Mel’s emotional whirlpool. In this case, the claustrophobia of their East Side apartment becomes progressively corrosive, as the couple begins sniping at each other.
Even Edna’s attempt to sustain them through her work only exacerbates her husband’s worthlessness as a breadwinner. The relationship, while it guards against loneliness, also irritates because of its by now stifling closeness. More than a few couples, I suspect, will find it an accurate reflection of their own marital tensions.
I wonder now if Lemmon’s prior association with Simon screenplays (The Odd Couple and The Out of Towners) might have misled some critics as to the nature of this role. The earlier characters were first-class neurotics, with a superabundance of internal sensors rendering them helpless before outside stimuli.
In contrast, Mel’s distress is triggered by an outside convulsion—the sudden loss of his job. Three plays later, Simon would create one of the few bombs of his early career with God’s Favorite, a retelling of the Book of Job. But The Prisoner of Second Avenue seems like a practice run for that.
Parallel to Mel’s nervous breakdown is the one that New York, in those pre-fiscal crisis years, was also experiencing. The signs of outward disorder—a breakdown in services, rising crime and civic incivility—are reflected within the Edisons’ building, as they cope with a nonfunctioning elevator, no water, lack of air conditioning or heat, a robbery in their own apartment and obnoxious upstairs neighbors.
In the end, Mel’s initial roar against his crumbling universe (“If you’re a human being you reserve the right to complain, to protest”) is exposed in all its futility. Like the more famous bearer of his surname, he must “invent”—or, in this case, re-invent: a new form of living and acceptance of what lies outside his control.
The Prisoner of Second Avenue has not run on Broadway since it closed in 1973 after nearly 800 performances. To my knowledge, its most high-profile revival since then was not here in the U.S. but in Great Britain in 2010, in a West End production starring Jeff Goldblum and Mercedes Ruehl,
Somehow, this very dark dramedy deserves to be seen again. Though much of the action relies on physical interaction between Mel and Edna that may be difficult to perform under present circumstances, I hope that some creative director will try to reimagine it for the kind of Zoom production that so many theater companies are attempting these days. Audiences will be surprised at how well Neil Simon anticipated our own confinement—as well as how expertly he made us laugh and weep over disruption and isolation.