Neil Simon: The Essence of NY Humor

Mark Belnick and Kimberly Lewis in “The Prisoner of Second Avenue.”

Neil Simon is one of the greatest modern playwrights of all time, and his works resonate throughout history — especially The Prisoner of Second Avenue, now at GTC Burbank. Although it takes place some 50 years ago, the show’s theme is not at all dated, but on the contrary, contemporary and topical to today’s troubled times — affecting us all economically, emotionally and artistically.

The “prisoner” is protagonist Mel (Mark Belnick), your quintessential neurotic New Yorker, a lost soul living in a NYC high-rise, caught in a maelstrom of urban chaos surrounding him: loud neighbors, air pollutants, unemployment, job-downsizing, companies on strike and dysfunctional family relations.

Yearning to escape to the idyllic countryside away from the madness of the tough, gritty metropolis, he and wife Edna (Kimberly Lewis) endure this rat race called “life” and all its angst.

Amidst the economic depression, Mel faces a severe internal depression, a nervous breakdown and his range of emotions and mannerisms reveal a melancholy and tension so thick it fills the entire stage. Reprising Jack Lemmon’s role in the film version, Belnick is a remarkable actor, eliciting compassion and empathy from his audience. To lighten the serious matters at hand, Simon effectively uses sarcasm and shtick (clearly inspired by the Yiddish Theatre of 2nd Avenue), as well as dialogue and scenarios with shades of Woody Allen style humor.

In a flash, a play written 50 years ago comes to life anew, focusing on one man, a “prisoner of his own device” who’s incapable of solving his problems alone; a wife overwhelmed and overworked; and the irony of a clan of helpless dysfunctional relatives coming to his aid.

Simon’s witticisms and way with words are truly timeless and eminent in this play. Mel, when describing his state of mind, exclaims, “I don’t know who or where I am; I don’t need therapy, I need the lost and found.”

When describing the passiveness of his psychiatrist: “I’ve got mirrors; I can watch myself get better and cure myself.”

Mel, in all his wit and wisdom, teaches us some profound lessons: relax, don’t take this wild and wooly world in which we live too seriously, and “be careful what you say on the terrace!”

The Prisoner of Second Avenue runs on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. through April 17. The GTC Burbank is located at 1111-B Olive Ave. For ticket information, visit www.plays411.com/prisoner or call (323) 960-7862.

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