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The Prisoner of Second Avenue

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Neil Simon is the world’s most prolific playwright, out scripting even William Shakespeare. Simon can also be among the most grating and annoying wordsmiths in the English lexicon. While Simon’s simple plots are often slice-of-life set-ups for occasional hilarity, mostly they’re platforms for rapid-fire prattle-banter and all-too predictable jokes.

Whether in one of his so-called classic such as The Odd Couple or in lesser achievements like Rose’s Dilemma, Simon’s dialogue is so recognizable that it’s easily replicated in the sitcom universe of TV Land. But with uber popular situation comedies like Seinfeld available at the touch of a button several times daily, Simon’s shtick doesn’t seem so funny now.

Case in point: Simon’s 1973 play, The Prisoner of Second Avenue, currently being staged by Wastatch Theatrical Ventures in Burbank, through April 17. In spite of the grand reviews of the recent West End revival of Second Avenue, which highlighted Jeff Goldblum and Mercedes Ruehl as the longsuffering Mel and Edna Edison, this Burbank effort is a groaner at best. At its worst, it’s as obnoxious as a close encounter with Gilbert Gottfried.

But is it the play itself, or is it the cast and other collaborators who are at fault in this faulty presentation? By spreading the blame, this critic will be diplomatic in this portion of a rather undiplomatic review: The problem lies with the author, actors (two specifically), and the auteur (Ken Scholl, whose direction misses subtly while lacking insight).

On the surface Simon’s conceit sounds relevant and familiar: Mel—who, with his longtime wife, Edna, resides on Second Avenue at 88th Street in Manhattan—loses his employment. Mel sees it coming and has been sick with anxiety for quite some time over impeding matters. When the lay-off at last does occur, Mel’s situation descends from emotional upheaval into material and physical (comedic) calamity (and the laughs are not contagious).

Unfortunately, Mark Belnick as Mel displays no charm and is void of likeability. Much of Belnick’s action seems unmotivated by circumstance and unaided by either intention or charisma. Kimberly Lewis, as Edna, is equally devoid of appeal. When she’s not staring down at Belnick’s pathetic Mel, she’s screeching her dialogue in a most unattractive fashion. If these two are prisoners, many of us would vote to keep them locked-up and unavailable for public consumption.

Nonetheless, a redemption of sorts does occur in Act Two with the appearance of four characters who are siblings to Mel. Lydia Weiss as Jesse; Milda Dacys as Pearl; Alan Brooks as Harry; and L B Zimmerman as Pauline all provide extraordinary support to a sagging show. What’s more, Steve Geiger; Gregory G. Giles; and Jennifer Kenyon each take roles in video segments portraying newscasters reporting on the urban horrors of the day.

With production values at the level of a competent community theater enterprise (Davis Campbell, set designer; Matt Richter, lighting and sound; David Bertolami, videographer; and Lauren Thomas, costumes), the production is two-hours long (with one intermission), but—with few exceptions— it feels like a much longer sentence. Through most of “The Prisoner of Second Avenue,” this critic felt imprisoned.  

"The Prisoner of Second Avenue" is a Wasatch Theatrical Ventures production, continuing at GTC Burbank—1111-B West Olive Avenue—through April 17. Show times are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. Matinees are Sundays at 3 p.m. For reservations, visit (323) 960 – 7862. For online ticketing, visit www.wasatchtheatricalventures.com.

 

Spotlight

Laguna Playhouse Announces Ellen Richard as its Interim Executive Director

May 3, 2016…Laguna Beach, Calif…Laguna Playhouse Board of Directors announced today that, later this month, Ellen Richard will be joining Laguna Playhouse as its Interim Executive Director. The Playhouse announced late last year that it was undertaking a national search guided by Arts Consulting Group (ACG) for an Executive Director to succeed Karen Wood who had held this position for the past eight years.

Commenting on the appointment Joe Hanauer and Paul Singarella, Co-Chairmens of the Board of Directors, said “In the midst of our search we encountered this wonderful opportunity to engage Ellen while we continue to seek appropriate long-term leadership. To have found someone with the extraordinary qualifications that Ellen has is thrilling. She is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer at New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company where she was Managing Director. Ellen also has strong successes in supervising the construction of theatres in New York and also in San Francisco at the American Conservatory Theater, a rare and valuable skill set considering the contemplated major remodel and expansion of the Laguna Playhouse.” Laguna Playhouse Artistic Director Ann E. Wareham adds, “We are pleased and proud to have Ellen Richard, truly a rock-star in our field, join us as our interim Executive Director who will help guide the Playhouse during this transition.” Comments Ellen Richard, “I have quickly grown fond of Laguna Beach and the Playhouse. I embrace this extraordinary opportunity to join one of the country’s top regional theatres at this time in its remarkable 95-year history. I look forward to helping the Playhouse and working with their incredible Board of Trustees and Ann E. Wareham.”

ABOUT ELLEN RICHARD

Ellen Richard served as Executive Director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco from 2010 through 2015.  During her tenure, Ms. Richard negotiated a deal to buy the Strand Theater in tech corridor of Mid-Market San Francisco, helped raise the $34,000 million to renovate and operate it and steered the design and construction for the project which opened in May of 2015. The complex featured two performance spaces and has won multiple awards.  She opened the 50 seat Costume Shop Theater, a 49-seat “black box” venue used for the company’s Master of Fine Arts students and for shows by other local companies.  Ms. Richard was also credited with expanding the company’s educational efforts, coming up with programs like the San Francisco Semester, which brings undergraduate acting students to ACT from around the world, and Stage Coach, a community theater mobile unit that reaches into diverse neighborhoods

She was also Executive Director of The Second Stage Theatre in New York City. During her tenure at Second Stage, which began in 2006 (through 2009), she was responsible for the purchase contract of the Helen Hayes Theatre, growth in subscription income of 48 percent, and growth in individual giving of 75 percent, as well as conceptualization of a highly successful gala format and “Second Generation,” a giving program through which donors enable deserving New York City youth to experience live theater. Under Ms. Richard’s leadership, Second Stage provided the initial home for the Broadway productions Everyday Rapture, Next to Normal, and The Little Dog Laughed.

From 1983 to 2005, Ms. Richard enjoyed a rich and varied career with Roundabout Theatre Company. The Roundabout that Ms. Richard joined was a small nonprofit theater company in bankruptcy. By the time she departed as Managing Director, Roundabout had become one of the country’s largest and most successful theater companies of its kind, with net assets in excess of $67 million dollars. Ms. Richard is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer, for Roundabout productions of Cabaret (1998), A View from the Bridge (1998), Side Man (1999), Nine (2003), Assassins (2004), and Glengarry Glen Ross (2005). As producer of more than 125 shows at Roundabout, she had direct supervision of all management and marketing functions. She created Roundabout’s “Theatre-PLUS” programs, which include singles, teachers, family, gay and lesbian, wine tasting, and the 7 p.m. “Early Curtain” series, all of which grew to represent more than 10 percent of Roundabout’s 40,000 subscribers.

As director of design and construction at Roundabout, Ms. Richard was responsible for more than $50 million of theater construction for 11 projects. She conceptualized the three permanent Roundabout stages — The Broadway venues of Studio 54 and the American Airlines Theatre, and the Off-Broadway venue The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre She directed the location search for Cabaret and oversaw the creation of the production’s environmental Kit Kat Klub. Prior to her tenure at Roundabout, Ms. Richard served as business manager of Westport Country Playhouse, theater manager for Stamford Center for the Arts, and business manager for Atlas Scenic Studio. She began her career working as a stagehand, sound designer, and scenic artist assistant.