Arts: Theatre: The very small world of Neil Simon

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IT SEEMS only yesterday that Richard Dreyfuss and Marsha Mason were up there on screen cutesily kvetching at one another in Neil Simon's The Goodbye Girl.

Visitors to the Theatre Royal, Haymarket now will experience a spooky sense of deja vu, for there they are again, grousing away with undiminished ingratiation, for all the world as though they have never laid off in the intervening 22 years. This time, though, they are starring as the central couple in The Prisoner of Second Avenue, Simon's 1971 stage hit, revived with a sure instinct for the tastes of its target audience by David Taylor.

Dreyfuss (grizzled now, but as dinkily dumpy as ever) and Mason (still sporting the kind of adorably bobbed schnozzle that looks like a nose- job) perform the piece with ruthless charm and efficiency. What with all the flapping, palms-up gesticulation they tirelessly use to embellish Simon's relentless wisecracks, a visitor from outer space might deduce that the pair of them were primitive precursors of birds embarked on the first cack-handed efforts at flight. But then, the whole enterprise has an aura of the antique. Given that Simon's comedies seem superannuated on their original outings, it's no surprise that they have generated a thriving revival industry centred on the twinkly names of yesteryear. It can surely only be a matter of time before they exhume George Burns for a retread tour of The Sunshine Boys.

Here, Dreyfuss plays Mel, a corporate man who suffers a nervous breakdown when he's fired. Well, I say "nervous breakdown"; it would be more accurate to say "pretext for an unending string of dyspeptic one-liners about the aggravations of New York life" - from the noisy German air hostesses in the apartment next door to the wonky air conditioning to the complaining neighbours overhead who twice rudely baptise him with a bucket of water.

If you compare Mel with a character like the depressed, childless wife in Terry Johnson's Dead Funny, you will get the measure of the difference between a person whose lacerating wit really does demonstrate that she is at the end of her tether, and a dramatic cipher who is undergoing a nice safe, audience-friendly nervous breakdown to get mechanical laughs.

Even at his most purportedly desperate, Mel has sufficient presence of mind to come out with rib-ticklers such as "I go to the zoo; the monkeys nudge each other and say: he's here again."

When Mel comments, of the fact that he keeps mislaying himself, "I don't need therapists, I need Lost and Found", you're inclined to cry out, "Baby, what you really need is a better dramatist". It's the same when Ms Mason, arriving back at the apartment to find it burgled, and has a brief crying fit that truthfully tunes you into the sense of violation, only to be instantly turned back into a cartoon character haplessly searching for the whisky and valium the thieves have stolen. This is a para-reality world, like Ruritania. The characters are not the Prisoners of Second Avenue or New York or the human condition, they are the captives of Neil Simon's complacently limited talent.

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