Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1389
Act 1, Scene 1
The Prisoner of Second Avenue takes place in a Manhattan apartment from midsummer to December, most likely in 1971. Mel and Edna Edison have been living on the fourteenth floor in this small apartment for six years. When the play opens, Mel is sitting alone anxiously in the dark at 2:30 a.m., moaning “Ohhh, Christ Almighty,” which wakes up Edna. When she asks him what is wrong, he replies, “Nothing,” and tells her to go back to bed, but then he keeps moaning. She soon gets him to admit that he cannot sleep because it is freezing in the apartment due to the broken air conditioner and asks what she can do to make him feel more comfortable. She notes that he has been tense for a week.
Mel then complains about the ugly pillows on the couch and declares that he is tired of the apartment, the building, and the entire city as they listen to the jarring street noises. He claims that he is more sensitive to noise, including the ones emanating from the apartment next door, where two German stewardesses entertain nightly guests. As he bangs on the wall, yelling at them to be quiet, he cracks it. Mel then orders Edna to call the superintendent in the morning and demand that the crack be fixed, along with the air conditioning and running toilet, insisting that he will not pay for any of it.
When Mel admits that tranquilizers no longer help calm him down, Edna begins to worry about him, which sets him off on a rant about everything that is wrong with the city and the world, including the lack of safe, good tasting food and the smell of garbage that permeates the air. Edna argues that he has to accept city life or leave Manhattan, but Mel insists that he will stay and exercise his right to protest. After he yells at a barking dog from his terrace, voices from above tell him to be quiet, but he just hollers back at them.
When Edna tries to get him to calm down, he screams at her. After he finally starts to relax a bit, he admits that he has not been sleeping well and that he feels he is losing control. Edna tries to reassure him that everyone is feeling that way in the city and suggests that he go back to his analyst. Mel tells her though that the doctor is dead and that therapists cost too much anyway.
When Mel declares that he is worried about losing his job, Edna says that they could move somewhere that does not cost as much, but Mel refuses to take her advice seriously. Then the stewardesses from next door call and complain about the noise, which sets Mel off on a tirade again, insisting that Edna “bang back” on the wall. The scene ends with the voice of news commentator Roger Keating, reporting on the long list of the city’s problems.
Act 1, Scene 2
A few days later, Edna has come into the apartment and discovered that they have been robbed. When Mel comes home, she explains that she went to the store for a short while, and since she lost the door key, she left the apartment unlocked. The robbers took everything, including the liquor and Mel’s suits. Edna is frightened, while Mel fumes to the point where he loses control, screaming and throwing ashtrays on the floor. He then admits that he was fired four days earlier but did not tell her because he hoped that he could find a new job. As he promises that he will find something, Edna insists that she has confidence in him.
Mel gets increasingly agitated about their lack of money as Edna tries to calm him down, telling him that they will get by. As he rants about the money that they have spent on useless things and about how he was mistreated by his company, a voice from an above apartment calls down to him to quiet down. When he refuses and yells back at the voice as he is standing on his terrace, he gets hit with a bucket of water from above, which drenches him. The scene closes with Edna wiping him off, trying to assure him that everything will work out.
Act 2, Scene 1
Approximately six weeks later in mid-September, Mel is wandering around the apartment in his bathrobe, grimmer and angrier than in the first act. When Edna comes home from her job as a secretary to make him lunch, she rushes, since she only has half an hour. She has a difficult time getting Mel to talk to her. He admits that he is frustrated by his failed attempts to find a job and humiliated by the fact that Edna is working.
He then begins to explain to Edna that “the social-economical-and-political-plot-to-undermine-the-working-classes-in-this-country” is preventing him from finding a job. He has heard this on the radio talk shows and believes that “the human race” has hatched this “very sophisticated, almost invisible” plot “to destroy the status quo” and insists that he is a victim of it.
Edna gets increasingly agitated during this rant to the point where she determines that he needs to see a therapist. While Mel ignores her and begins to plan his revenge, which involves burying those trying to destroy him with snow, Edna calls the doctor, insisting that her husband must see him as soon as possible. The scene closes again with the voice of Roger Keating, reporting that the governor has been mugged and that city workers are on strike.
Act 2, Scene 2
Two weeks later, Mel’s brother Harry and three sisters, Pauline, Pearl, and Jessie, meet at Mel’s to discuss his situation and how they can help. The sisters talk about Mel’s childhood while Harry tries to get them focused on Mel’s financial troubles. He proposes that they all chip in to pay for Mel’s doctor bills, but the sisters are reluctant to finance them if they last more than a few months. Harry, however, insists that Mel is their responsibility and deserves their help for as long as he needs it.
When Edna arrives, Harry proposes his plan, and she is deeply touched but asks if they could buy a summer camp for him instead. Edna is certain that if Mel gets out of the city and into the country, he will regain his mental health. After Harry rejects the plan, arguing that Mel does not have any business sense, a heavily sedated Mel appears after just having taken a walk. The scene ends with the voice of Stan Jennings, who has taken over reporting duties from Roger Keating after the latter was mugged.
Act 2, Scene 3
Six weeks later, in mid-December, Edna is on the phone, trying to get someone to restore the water and electricity to the apartment. When Mel arrives, he declares that he is not going back to his incompetent doctor and will instead work out his problems himself. Edna, who is getting increasingly upset about the lack of water and electricity, tearfully tells Mel that her company has gone bankrupt, and she is out of a job. Like Mel had done at the beginning of the play, Edna begins to rant about all of the city’s problems, claiming that all she wants is to be able to take a bath. She implores Mel to bang on the pipes as she banged on the wall for him to try to get someone to pay attention to her. In order to calm her, Mel agrees to move with her out of the city.
Harry arrives, offering Mel money for the summer camp. When Mel refuses, Harry leaves, and he and Edna argue about Harry’s offer. Their shouts prompt a voice from above to tell them to shut up. As Mel tries to apologize to his neighbor, he is hit again with a bucket of water. As he stands on the terrace in a state of shock, it starts to snow. Edna and Mel look at each other, and he goes to the closet and takes out his shovel. The play closes with Roger Keating’s voice, warning residents of the upcoming snow storm and asking them to work together to shovel everyone out.