Jeff Goldblum is the big name in The Prisoner of Second Avenue but I wanted to see it for his co-star Mercedes Ruehl, making her London stage debut. I have to admit to some trepidation though - Goldblum's not a favourite of mine and although showing at the Vaudeville, Terry Johnson's production is presented by Kevin Spacey's Old Vic, which after years of building up goodwill with me has spent 2010 seemingly trying to undo it all (see also: the Donmar Warehouse.)
Neil Simon's rather depressing 1971 comedy sees Mel (Goldblum) losing his job and, not so gradually, his mind, as his wife Edna (Ruehl) has to become the breadwinner. There's a lot of snappy dialogue flying about but for me personally the hit rate was pretty low. Maybe I was missing something as many people around me were SCREAMING with laughter at every utterance, but I suspect I was unfortunate enough to be in with one of those THIS IS A COMEDY SO WE WILL ENJOY OURSELVES WHATEVER HAPPENS crowds. And this was a Monday, I'm glad I wasn't there for a Friday night show. The OTT reactions did calm down a bit as the show went on, which suggests that I'm right about some people forcing themselves to find everything funny. The gays to my right came back after the interval (I didn't think they would) but they buggered off soon after so I can't have been the only one missing what was so hilarious. Don't get me wrong, there were a few laughs in there for me as well, most of them coming from Ruehl, whose acidic delivery and facial expressions are spot on. But, taking a line about his character being a spoilt child and running with it, Goldblum plays Mel's nervous breakdown as an extended tantrum, and whether it was just down to this or also Simon's script, I was unable to engage in the characters or story in any way.
Mostly a two-hander, there's a bit of a change of pace when Mel's brother (Linal Haft) and sisters (Patti Love, Amanda Boxer and Fiona Gillies) visit to try and help him with his breakdown - the women all do a nice line in eccentrics and it's fun to watch it become obvious they want to do as little actual helping, especially of a financial nature, as humanly possible. But it's soon back to the histrionics of the main couple. I went to see Mercedes Ruehl and she is the best thing in it, but not enough to salvage the show. I know it's a hazard of seeing so much theatre that some shows fade in my memory, but I can see myself having trouble remembering tomorrow what play I saw tonight.
The Prisoner of Second Avenue by Neil Simon is booking until the 25th of September at the Vaudeville Theatre.