First Night: The Prisoner of Second Avenue, Vaudeville Theatre, London

Masterclass of comic acting fails to sustain the dramatic energy

Every clown feels pain and sheds tears. But even allowing for the dark side of the loon in Neil Simon, Broadway's premier gag-meister and comedy merchant these past 50 years, The Prisoner of Second Avenue is a bleak and mostly cheerless entertainment.

The argument for reviving it in London – apart from the opportunity of seeing two of America's finest actors, Jeff Goldblum and Mercedes Ruehl, in their prime and on blistering, sardonic form – must reside in the picture it paints of Manhattan on the skids.

Forty years ago, when the play was first done (there was a later film starring Jack Lemmon and Anne Bancroft), this must have seemed daring and pessimistic. Today, it strikes too many familiar chords to be surprising. And the stagecraft is curiously old-fashioned.

Goldblum's Mel Edison is a 47-year-old advertising executive on the way out. His condition is existentially reflected in the heat and noise of the city, the endless partying of the German air-hostesses next door and the grim censure of the upstairs neighbours who empty buckets of water over him whenever he goes out on the balcony to lodge a protest.

Mel and Edna are miserably ensconced in a 14th-floor apartment on the Upper East Side; "Why do we pay hundreds of dollars to live in an egg-box that leaks?" asks Mel, not unreasonably, feeding his paranoia with a view that his redundancy is less a result of the economic downturn than of a conspiracy among the neighbours and the hell of modern city life.

Edna combats his misery with doughty good humour and, in Mercedes Ruehl's feisty, throaty performance, the sort of cock-eyed optimism and loyalty he probably doesn't deserve. Unfortunately, she leaves the door open and they get burgled.

Terry Johnson's production does its best to keep the laughs coming in spite of everything, but the flipside of Simon's writing habit, his Woody Allen mode, can't sustain the dramatic energy of a play that finally resorts to unsuitably pallid metaphor, with Goldblum and Ruehl taking up a shovel and posing like the grim subjects of Grant Wood's American Gothic painting while snow falls through their skylight.

By this time, in the second act, the couple have been visited by Mel's three Jewish sisters – slyly portrayed by Amanda Boxer, Patti Love and the surprisingly svelte Fiona Gillies – and his pushy businessman brother (played like a bulldog by Linal Haft). Cracks are showing in the family gathering, but you feel it's the start of another play Simon suddenly realises he wants to write but doesn't have time for.

Goldblum, very tall and giraffe-gangly, eyes standing out like bolts from his inner blues, is intermittently brilliant without quite joining up the dots between a wise-cracking schmuck and a stricken victim of the metropolitan rat race. Ruehl, on the other hand, gives a master class in comic acting, judging every line and gesture to perfection, and gluing it all together with incomparable technique, ideally suited to the material.

Rob Howell's design is authentically 1970s and cleverly attuned to the period of the action and the angst, but there are some really awful linking television reports of trouble on the streets and strikes among the judges that are fuzzily projected and ludicrously out of synch with the play. Better to have ditched them and played the best of the Loving Spoonful as an ironic commentary in the scene changes.

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