Fool for the City 

There are no surprises, but Chaffin's Barn does well with a Neil Simon staple

There are no surprises, but Chaffin's Barn does well with a Neil Simon staple

Neil Simon is so prolific and ubiquitous that it's easy to overlook his contribution to pop culture. Radio, TV, stage, film—he's been everywhere. Still, from time to time, it's worth contemplating the Simon phenomenon.

The current Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre production of Simon's 1971 hit The Prisoner of Second Avenue is typical Simon fare—initially talky, occasionally tedious, often very funny, bending but not breaking under the weight of its datedness.

Sad-sack New Yorker Mel Edison has lost his job. Devoted wife Edna tries to help him through his middle-age malaise, even getting a job to help with the financial crisis. Mel can't shake his depression, though, and eventually his three sisters and brother descend on his Upper East Side high-rise apartment to offer sympathy and (haltingly) money to get their youngest sibling a good therapist.

Mel and Edna are angst-ridden empty-nesters who put up with obnoxious neighbors and faulty plumbing—classic Simon-esque Manhattan denizens. Buddy Raper and Lydia Bushfield are well cast here, and, under Charles Burr's direction, they work their way through the play's long set-up with agreeable charm. It's not their fault that the dialogue seems a little repetitive and the comic bits a little hammy. Still, it's worth at least one guffaw when the upstairs neighbor dumps water on Mel as he stands out on his terrace, haranguing misanthropically at the world.

But things pick up when the family arrives, and Joy Tilley Perryman, Janet McMahan, Rebekah Durham and especially Eric Tichenor are simply delightful as the kvetching clan. They make false assumptions and dance tightfistedly around monetary matters, yet ultimately express their love for Mel, all the while evoking the gales of laughter that have made Simon a household name. The comedy shows its age, with references to President Nixon, the Book-of-the-Month Club, Margaret Truman, Bess Myerson and hippies. And when's the last time a shrink cost anyone $40 an hour? Luckily, the humorous characters completely trump the dated references.

The Prisoner of Second Avenue requires some patience, but it's well-rendered Simon, a fine-enough thing in itself. The play runs through Oct. 9.


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