January 2024
Classic Dramedy
The Prisoner of Second Avenue at SPCA Jan. 11-21

Neil Simon, considered by many to be among the world’s best playwrights, was nominated for over 20 prestigious awards over the course of his over 50-year career, and won four Tonys, One Golden Globe, four awards from the Writer’s Guild of America, and even a Pulitzer Prize. It seems that Simon took to heart advice from famed Hollywood talent agent Swifty Lazar, who on learning that he was writing a new play, said, “Make sure it’s about something.” The very prolific Simon’s plays have graced stages around the world, including many performances here in Yavapai County.

Suze’s Prescott Center for The Arts, is bringing one of Simon’s classic plays to life in January. The Prisoner of Second Avenue is the story of a long-married couple, Mel and Edna, facing the trials and tribulations of 1970 New York life — a heat wave, too-close neighbors, economic devastation, too much garbage and too little Scotch, to name a few. Like many of Simon’s plays, the relationships are challenging, passionate and sometimes loud, but behind that is a deep love and genuine desire to fix things and move forward.

Prisoner is one of Simon’s darker comedies, dealing with many issues that face us today. Director Frank Malle says, “Simon brings up all kinds of things, not only the mental health, he brings up socioeconomic issues. He brings up ‘the plot’ … conspiracy theories, paranoia, schizophrenia, nervous breakdowns. You know, he goes on about the high crime rate, the crime wave. Although this is written 50-some years ago, he wrote, ‘people are so alienated and so fearful these days that they are separating themselves from all contact.’”

Malle has a long personal history with Simon’s work. He first appeared in a production of Barefoot in the Park in 1966, performed in many Simon plays over the years, and directed God’s Favorite at Prescott Center for the Arts just before it suspended production with the pandemic.

Simon wrote it as a comedy, and a delicate balance is required to bring out the comedy without losing respect for its heavier topics. Malle says the audience “should be ready for serious subject matter treated humorously.”

The character of Mel Edison, played by Matthew Conde, has been the head-of-household, working hard as an account executive, providing for his family and dealing with the struggles of city life. When curveball after  curveball comes his way, his ability to cope is pushed beyond his limits. Reaching his breaking point, he vents his anger and frustrations on his closest sounding-boards — his loving wife Edna, and his neighbors.

Edna (Lizabeth Rogers, your writer) is no shrinking violet. Although she’s held the traditional role of homemaker, her sharp tongue and unwillingness to be used as a verbal punching bag demand his respect, even in the darkest hour. This isn’t a sugar-coated portrayal of a marriage. This is a couple dealing with the hardest six months they’ve faced. Malle likens the relationship between Mel and Edna to a bit of Edith and Archie Bunker and a little Alice and Ralph Cramden.

Ready to step in, Mel’s older siblings seem to think they have all the answers. Harry (Rad Crews) assumes the status of family patriarch, a role he feels was thrust upon him very young, having to take care of his younger brother Mel as well as his sisters Jessie (Julie Cargill), Pearl (Rebecca Goodling) and Pauline (Pat Newbert). Having babied Mel for his entire life, the sisters are ready to do so once again — well, as long as it doesn’t cost too much.

Lizabeth Rogers, Matthew Condeand director Frank Malle

The production will play in a three-quarter round arrangement in the new Studio Theatre. Says Malle, “It's like theatre in your lap. People get much more involved in the action of the play. In this intimate setting, it heightens the audience experience.” The entire play takes place in the Edisons’ 14th-floor apartment in New York City. Projection technology, one of the theatre’s new features, will allow the audience see the cityscape outside the terrace.

Don’t miss the show that Time magazine said, “Creates an atmosphere of casual cataclysm, an everyday urban purgatory of copelessness from which laughter seems to be released like vapor from the city’s manholes.”

The Prisoner of Second Avenue will play Jan. 11-21 in the Studio Theater at Suze’s Prescott Center for the Arts, 208 N. Marina St. For tickets and details call 928-445-3286 or visit prescottartcenter.org.

Lizabeth Rogers covers the local-theatre beat.

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