The Prisoner of Second Avenue

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In front of a packed house, Provo Theatre Company re-opened last Friday after a year’s hiatus with a fantastic production of Neil Simon’s “The Prisoner of Second Avenue.” That void you’ve felt in your theater-going life ought to feel filled now; PTC is back and, one is tempted to say, better than ever.

The theater’s new artistic director, Scott Wilkinson, stars in “Prisoner” as Mel Edison, a middle-aged New Yorker who is disintegrating before our eyes. The very picture of domestic discomfort, Mel paces around the apartment he shares with his devoted wife Edna (Tayva Patch), hollering over every inconvenience, real or imagined. The people next door are too loud; the garbage on the street 14 floors below smells too bad; the toilet runs for too long.

Edna, who loves her husband but refuses to be a doormat, puts up with his complaining while seeking to know the cause of it. The cause is discovered: He has lost his job. And because when it rains, it pours, their apartment is subsequently burglarized, leading to a lengthy discussion over whether Edna was really only gone “five minutes” or whether it must have been longer.

Thematically, “Prisoner” is among Simon’s darker plays; it also happens to be one of his funniest. It is “Death of a Salesman” filtered through “All in the Family,” with Mel’s paranoid delusions much more amusing than Willy Loman’s and not as political as Archie Bunker’s. Characters obsess over minutiae, effectively reducing weighty issues into smaller, easier-to-handle chunks. When Mel’s siblings arrive to discuss how to help their brother’s worsening mental and financial condition, the conversation is over why one of them doesn’t drink coffee, and over what “X” will come out to be in the equation of “We’ll give Mel ‘X’ amount of dollars.”

Wilkinson and Patch demonstrate an admirable command over, and understanding of, their characters. Mel’s and Edna’s psychologies are as clear to us as our best friends’ are; we know them, and we relate to them. Wilkinson earns sympathy for Mel, giving the blowhard just enough of a soft edge to make him human. And when Mel gets to be too much, Edna can go from doting housewife to fierce opponent with just a change of her expression, thanks to Patch’s deft performance.

Steve Anderson is a wonderful surprise as Mel’s brother Harry, who does not appear until the second act. Anderson’s deadpan, physically charged performance is hysterical. It is the highlight of the show.

Jean Jenkins, Wendy Asay and Cherlyn Bacon are also enjoyable in their scene as Mel’s unhelpful sisters.

It is a little troublesome that Mel’s sisters speak with thick New Yawk accents when Mel and Harry do not; apparently, the accent skipped the boys in that family. It’s also odd that even though the profanity has been cut from this production, the line in which Edna apologizes for her “husband’s language” remains. (Maybe she means his grammar, or the fact that he doesn’t have an accent even though he should.)

But never mind. The director, Rick Macy, gives the play a strong gallop of a pace and has coaxed honest, believable performances out of his actors. It’s an auspicious new birth for one of the valley’s best theaters.

Should you go? Yes, especially if you never got around to visiting PTC before the hiatus. Go see what you’ve been missing.

It was nice to see all 130 seats in the theater filled -- and on the night of a BYU home game, too. No doubt many of the audience members were friends and family of people involved with the theater, and some of them probably got in free. But still! A great new start for the theater. (The theater had closed, by the way, to raise money. Having done that successfully, it reopened after a one-year hiatus.) I did a 10-minute scene from this play a few years earlier for a friend's directing class at BYU. I was amazed how many of the lines came back to me upon hearing Scott Wilkinson say them, especially considering how poorly I remembered them when I was performing them.

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