Neil Simon revealed a considerably darker side than was his wont in his 1973 hit The Prisoner Of Second Avenue, which Jason Alexander now stars in at North Hollywood’s El Portal Theatre in a production that rivals the best of Broadway revivals.

Alexander is Mel Edison, the titular “Prisoner,” living in a crisis-riddled New York City not too far removed from the financially-plagued, crime-ridden America of today, forty years later. It’s not just the air conditioner in Mel’s fourteenth floor Manhattan apartment that’s gone kaput. His entire life seems to be in shambles, and neither tranquilizers nor the encouraging words of his wife Edna (Gina Hecht) seem capable of calming him down. Things go from bad to worse when the Edisons’ apartment is robbed, and from worse to worser when Mel reveals the secret he’s been hiding from Edna for the past few days. He’s been canned, along with six of his coworkers. Sound familiar?

With Jason Alexander fussing and fuming and ranting and raving, it’s a sure bet that Prisoner, under Glenn Casale’s expert direction, is going to provide one laugh after another. Alexander is, after all, the man who garnered seven Emmy nominations for his role as George Costanza on Seinfeld, in other words an actor who can coax laughter from a stone. What distinguishes Alexander’s performance in Prisoner, though, is not simply the expert comic timing we’ve come to expect from him but the core of reality that the star brings to the role. Mel Edison’s woes (and Neil Simon’s legendary one-liners) may strike our funny bones more times than we can count, but there’s never any doubt that Alexander’s Mel is a man in meltdown mode.

Sharing star billing is the absolutely marvelous Hecht (whose first name’s first syllable turns out to be pronounced like the second syllable of “beguine”), a TV vet with credits going back three decades to her recurring role as Jean DaVinci on Mork And Mindy. Hecht’s superb underplaying provides the perfect counterpart to Mel’s hysteria. Later, when Edna loses the job she took to tide the Edisons over during hubby’s unemployment, thereby causing her to exhibit the same symptoms of rage and frustration that Mel demonstrated earlier on, Hecht’s performance soars to new heights of pain and hilarity.

Alexander and Hecht exit the stage in the middle of Act Two for a gem of an extended scene featuring a quartet of venerable comedic talents (Annie Korzen, Ron Orbach, DeeDee Rescher, and Carole Ita White) as Mel’s four older siblings, a sort of Four-Actor-One-Act-Within-A-Two-Actor-Two-Act which the veteran foursome take turns stealing scenes in. It’s pure delight to see Korzen, Rescher, and White put their personal stamps on Pearl, Pauline, and Jessie, and Orbach’s terrific Harry gets to return for a great brother-to-brother scene opposite Alexander, one which recalls the Smothers Brothers “Mom always liked you best” refrain.

Scenic designer extraordinaire Stephen Gifford takes full advantage of the El Portal’s large stage area to create a gorgeous, finely detailed (courtesy of properties designer Alexandra Dunn) early-‘70s upper Manhattan apartment, which Jared A. Sayeg lights to subtle perfection. Kate Bergh’s splendid costumes bring back the fashion transition between ‘60s and ‘70s. Philip G. Allen’s sound design incorporates song hits of the era in addition to numerous effects, and insures that we hear Alexander and Hecht on their frequent forays into the upstage kitchen area. John Lovick is production stage manager.

Mel and Edna Edison may feel trapped in the hell of a 1971 verge-of-collapse New York City, but regardless of whatever 2011 woes audience members bring with them to the El Portal, Jason Alexander, Gina Hecht, and the ever entertaining Neil Simon make sure that all those worries get left at the door. The Prisoner Of Second Avenue proves that, regardless of the decade, laughter is indeed the best medicine.

El Portal Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Boulevard, North Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
April 27, 2011
Photos: Michael Lamont

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