Neil Simon and Jason Alexander would appear to be a theatrical match made in heaven. And so they are.
In Simon’s “The Prisoner of Second Avenue,” now running at the El Portal Theater in North Hollywood, Alexander romps, rages, and unravels to early Simon at his most hilarious.
Set in 1971, the year it was written, “Prisoner” plumbs the depths of New York City living, from nonfunctioning air conditioning in the summer and nonfunctioning heating systems in the winter, sporadic electricity failures, and water stoppages, to noisy neighbors, rats in the sewers, and garbage strikes. “The garbage keeps piling up; if they don’t collect it soon our apartment on the 14th floor will become the second floor!” the beleaguered hero, Jason Alexander, playing a New Yorker named Mel, moans.
The traditional challenges of New York life are exacerbated, however, when Mel loses his job. And here “Prisoner” is very up-to-date. Losing your job in a recession 40 years ago is pretty much the same as losing it today. The stages of grief — anger, anguish, and despair — wash over Mel, and while the audience may empathize with his predicament, they can’t help howling at his over-the-top reactions. It’s a special treat to watch Jason Alexander do his familiar shtick as a character that was created 18 years before he metamorphosed into that quintessential kvetch, George Costanza.
As his sympathetic wife Edna, Gina Hecht provides a strong, soothing counterpoint to Mel’s histrionics — until she, too, loses her patience and becomes his partner in high-decibel lunacy.
“The Prisoner of Second Avenue” is more of a George Burns and Gracie Allen stand-up act, with props, than a fully realized play, but who’s quibbling? Alexander and Hecht’s performances are more than enough to sustain the first act, and in the second they are joined by Mel’s family, a ditzy trio of older sisters and a concerned, take-charge brother, played to perfection by Annie Korzen, Deedee Rescher, Carole Ita White, and Ron Orbach. A Greek chorus of calamity, they have gathered in Mel and Edna’s apartment to determine how they can “help out” — if it doesn’t cost too much.
Glenn Casale directs this coven of comedic characters with panache, and the pacing is perfect — as is to be expected from this ensemble of long-time professionals.
For me, an additional kick was provided by learning that Mel and Edna’s apartment on the Upper East Side was located at 2nd Avenue and 88th Street. That’s just two blocks from where I lived in the 1980s. Who knew?
“The Prisoner of Second Avenue” will continue its run Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 6 p.m., and matinees on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 2 p.m. through May 15 at the El Portal Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., in North Hollywood. Call (866) 811-4111 or (818) 508-4200 or visit www.elportaltheatre.com for tickets.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.