Neil Simon, one of the most popular of twentieth-century American dramatists, is known for his comedies that often examine the tensions that can arise among family members or between men and women living in New York. In his play, The Prisoner of Second Avenue, which ran on Broadway for 788 performances beginning in 1973, Simon’s comedy turns darker as he explores the devastating effect that city life can have on a middle-aged couple. In early 1970s, when the play takes place, New York City was beset by financial problems, high crime, and strikes that made daily life often inconvenient and sometimes dangerous. The play chronicles Mel and Edna’s struggle to survive city life, coupled with noisy neighbors, faulty plumbing, and the loss of employment, and to maintain a measure of dignity in the process.
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...
(The entire section is 1,523 words.)