Through the confines of the Zoom screen, the Virtual Studio Players released Neil Simon’s Prisoner of Second Avenue. As Co-Producer Peter Artale explained this choice to open the company’s 2021 season: “We’re all feeling this way because of the last few months.” He and Co-Producer/Artistic Director Greg Northam arrested community theatre fans’ attention with the Saturday, January 30th performance.
Perhaps influenced by Shakespeare’s “winter of our discontent,” Neil Simon began this piece with the summer of Mel Edison’s (played by Lee Catalfomo). During a bout of insomnia during a sweltering 2:00 AM summer morning his wife Edna (Ann Grippo) tried to settle him. Her attempts made the Little Engine That Could seem like a low effort quitter by comparison.
Mr. Catalfano portrayed the character like an Al Bundy figure with nervous issues. He moaned about the air conditioning. “It’s 12 degrees inside and 89 degrees outside.” The “sounds of the city” vexed him. The noise from the neighboring German stewardesses annoyed him. He blamed health food for giving him an upset stomach.
Mr. Catalfomo delivered his lines as though his character relived the anguish they caused while he spoke. The performer made his Mel’s disgruntled behavior amusing to watch. He seamlessly worked in the comedy from Simon’s script.
The patience Ann Grippo brought to Edna made the biblical Job seem impulsive. After listening to Mr. Calafomo deliver his litany of irritations, she showed calmness. Her soothing demeanor encouraged him to discuss the source of his anxiety. As a man about to turn 47, he feared losing his job. Mr. Califomo portrayed Mel as “becoming unraveled.”
Winston Churchill once compared himself to “the old man on his deathbed thinking about all the problems he had that never happened.” Mel didn’t share the Prime Minister’s good fortune. He lost his job in what we would call today a “mass layoff.” His feelings of coming undone proved prescient. The strain caused him to suffer a nervous breakdown. Edna and his siblings ensured that he received the professional help he needed.
The plot may conjure thoughts of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, but Simon kept a humorous tone in this 1971 play. Due to Mel’s unemployment, Edna took a job to support the two. She still came home every day to make him lunch. This caused a comical exchange well performed by Mr. Catalfomo and Ms. Grippo. He complained that everyone in the building knew what she did. He informed her: “A six-year-old girl on the fourth floor is the only other person in the building who gets their lunch made.”
The conversation developed into something darker. The cast kept it funny. Mr. Catalfomo discussed his learning of “the plot”: a conspiracy to repress the working class. His increasing paranoia led him to insist that “they” were “taking over.”
With a serious expression and a hint of apprehension in her voice, Ms. Grippo replied, “Tell me who’s taking over so I’m not going to be late for work.”
Ms. Grippo also made a witty observation regarding Mr. Catalfomo’s analysis of socioeconomic conditions in America. “You mean there’s another class besides the lower, middle and upper class?”
The pair delivered hysterical performances when the Edisons discovered their apartment had been robbed. Mr. Catalfomo’s disbelief of Ms. Grippo’s insistence that she was only gone for “five minutes” made for an enjoyable exchange.
Ms. Grippo asked what he’d been doing since he lost his job. Mr. Catalfomo delivered one of the show’s funniest moments. He explained that he filled in for a 14-year-old during a baseball game. In two innings, Mel struck out, dropped several balls in the outfield and lost the game for his team.
Mr. Catalfomo’s and Ms. Grippo’s performances complimented one another very well. Their characters alternated from being the high-strung person to the more relaxed one. Each executed these transitions believably.
The actors who played Mel’s siblings showed that genetics may have influenced Mel’s quirky behavior. Harry (Greg Northam), Pauline (Anne Buckwheat), Pearl (Susan Dewey) and Jessie (Gina Vitolo-Stevens) gathered to determine how to help their brother.
Mr. Northam played Harry, the businessman. He suggested everyone contribute to loaning Mel “X number of dollars.” A comical debate ensued regarding the precise value of “X.” Ms. Buckwheat reminded the group that they hadn’t seen their brother or sister-in-law for nine years. Ms. Vitolo-Stevens’ ever-present tissues showed Jessie to be the emotional member of the family. Ms. Dewey argued with Mr. Northam as to whether or not Mel suffered a nervous breakdown during his high school years.
Mr. Northam once again distinguished himself as a strong character actor. He returned to his forte of playing outwardly strong figures with hidden vulnerabilities. Mr. Northam showed Harry’s jealousy towards Mel. In a moving scene opposite Mr. Catalfomo, he brought out his character’s feelings of alienation and desire to be “the favorite.”
In addition to co-producing, Peter Artale contributed the voice of newscaster Roger Keating. He also managed the audio/visual aspects of the production. Mr. Artale selected excellent photos of New York City and an apartment background to enhance the production’s quality.
The performers chose excellent costuming for their roles. Mr. Catalfomo and Ms. Grippo both wore robes and pajamas during the early morning scene. Ms. Grippo even put rollers in her hair. When Edna took a job, Ms. Grippo wore a jacket and sash around her shoulders. Mr. Northam’s scarf may prove as meme worthy as Senator Bernie Sanders’ mittens.
The Virtual Studio Players deserve an award for authentic prop use. Both Mr. Catalfomo and Ms. Grippo performed with rotary phones. In most virtual shows, performers use their smart phones to simulate calling someone. Credit goes to the production team for ensuring that a period appropriate telephone made it into the performance.
The show proved more topical than the production team intended. Prisoner of Second Avenue concluded on the eve of a snowstorm. (Credit goes to Mr. Catalfomo for his wonderful snow dance performance.) The Sunday, January 31st performance at Virtual Studio Players will occur prior to a snowstorm. Worries of being imprisoned for the next few days should “cell” viewers on whether or not to watch the show at Virtual Studio Players.