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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
THE PRISONER OF SECOND AVENUE
at the Vaudeville

A NEW YORK STATE OF MIND
By JOHN NATHAN

  Jeff Goldblum/ Ph: Johan Persson

West End producers have learned the lesson of last year’s well-reviewed but failed Broadway revival of Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs: that these days it is not the play that audiences pay to see, but the star. No star, no play. Or at least, not for long.
 
Jeff Goldblum will do nicely. In Simon’s 1971 comedy Goldblum plays king kvetch Mel, a 47-year-old advertising executive who is ready and ripe for midlife crisis. It’s a role with star pedigree. Peter Falk played Mel in the 1971 Broadway premiere (so star status counted then, too), and Jack Lemmon played him in the film version.
 
Here, the lanky, languid Goldblum not only has Hollywood cache but the credibility of cool. He previously trod the boards in London with Kevin Spacey in Mamet’s Speed the Plow. His return, co-produced by Spacey’s Old Vic Company (though not, this time, at the Old Vic) arrives with memories of that thrilling evening in 2008 still fresh in the mind.
 
From Matthew Warchus’ production, director Terry Johnson has, it seems, taken on another lesson; that to convincingly stage the work of a quintessentially American playwright, it is best to have a couple of quintessentially American actors.
 
So, opposite Goldblum’s disillusioned Mel, Johnson has cast Mercedes Ruehl as Mel’s wife and straight man, Edna. They make a fizzing double act, not on the scale that Goldblum and Spacey created, but still, this revival has a distinct whiff of authenticity about it when Goldblum and Ruehl share the stage. These actors know about their neurotic New York alter egos every bit as much Goldblum and Spacey knew about Mamet’s Hollywood sharks.
 
Mel’s 2:30 a.m. kvetch about two-dollar food in three-dollar packaging, his company’s prospects as recession looms, and even the breakdown of New York’s services all sound surprisingly contemporary for a play first seen 40 years ago. Where it feels dated is in Mel’s sense of emasculation after he is sacked and Edna becomes the breadwinner.
 
Still, Simon’s one-liners ring out as clearly as they ever did. Unemployed, Mel has been for so many walks in the park he knows where the squirrels hide their nuts. And because craziness comes easily to Goldblum, even Mel’s old-school chauvinism comes across more as eccentricity than as a dated attitude.
 
Goldblum gives Mel's breakdown a sinister edge. Its symptoms include twitches and schizophrenic mumblings as he stalks the apartment in his pajamas and on legs as thin as stilts.
 
There is a scene where Mel produces a huge shovel from which he plans to cause an avalanche of snow to fall from his balcony onto his hated neighbour’s head. “They wont find him until the spring,” promises manic Mel. It would be no surprise if he emerged not with a shovel but a sniper’s rifle. Except of course this is cosy Neil Simon we are talking about, and Ruehl's grounded Edna, though well capable of indulging her own variety of New York neurosis, keeps Mel and the play from spinning off into bloodbath territory.
 
They make a great team, until the team is joined by Mel’s concerned siblings, played by a British cast whose comic style is much broader and slower than their American counterparts. Much reliance is put on the pregnant pause. Punch lines are overplayed and not, as they must be, thrown away.
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