First Night: Cutesy jokes hold stars captive in old New York

`Prisoner of Second Avenue' Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London
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IT SEEMS like only yesterday that Richard Dreyfuss and Marsha Mason were up there on the silver screen, cutesily kvetching at one another in Neil Simon's The Goodbye Girl. Visitors to the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, 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 star 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 and Mason perform the piece with ruthless charm and efficiency. What with all the flapping, palms-up gesticulation they use to embellish Simon's relentless wise cracks, a visitor from outer space might deduce that they were a primitive form of bird, making the first cack-handed efforts at flight. Given that Simon's comedies have a superannuated feel in their original state, it's not surprising they have generated a big revival industry centring on names of yesteryear. It can be only time before they exhume George Burns for a retread tour of The Sunshine Boys.

Dreyfuss plays Mel, a corporate man who suffers a nervous breakdown when he is 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" .

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 humour really does demonstrate that she is at the end of her tether and a cipher who is undergoing a nice, safe, audience-friendly breakdown. Even at his most purportedly desperate, Mel comes 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 on 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."

These 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.