by Tony Braithwaite
Growing up, I learned that nothing is ever, "merely," funny. To my family, funny is a commodity, funny is an ace of trump, funny is a defense mechanism, funny is a gift, and funny is a life force. Then, and even now, my family members and I don't say I love you to one another very often. Rather, we try to make each other laugh. If we can make each other laugh, we can make each other feel loved. In short, we say, "I laugh you."
When I was a little boy my mom and dad came home from seeing Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs and said I should play Eugene Morris Jerome one day. When I was in 8th grade I saw my first Broadway non-musical, The Odd Couple (Female Version) with Sally Struthers and Rita Moreno. And when it was clear during my adolescence that I was a hypochondrical neurotic neat freak, I realized that Neil Simon had written the role of Felix Ungar for me 17 years before I was born.
Prisoner of 2nd Avenue marks the 4th time in my career that I have actually been in one of Simon's plays. In the fall of 1997 I was in Biloxi Blues at the Hedgerow Theatre in Media (where I did get to tackle Eugene Jerome, albeit in Brighton's sequel); a year later I played Lenny in Rumors at the same theatre; and just 2 years ago at The Kimmel Theatre I played Felix Ungar at last (having done scenes from The Odd Couple in college and a reading of it for 1812 Productions).
In short, I've been a huge fan of Neil Simon for many years.
I laugh his plays a lot.
Every time I am lucky enough to be in a Neil Simon play I am always struck by the same things: how relatable and familiar his characters feel (is it any wonder that Jack Lemmon, known for decades as the American Everyman, played so many Simon roles?), how perfectly crafted his writing seems (It's often compared to symphony music), and of course how damn hilarious he is.
I'd venture to say that no one in the history of the American Theatre has written as many laugh lines as Neil Simon. There's just been no one funnier. Theatre snobs often decry Simon's plays as trite populace fare, "merely," because he's funny. (Ironically they're often the same people who often ascribe to the theatre mantra, "Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.") This always amazes me because no one would ever look at Jerry Seinfeld or Johnny Carson and say the same thing - that they were, "merely," funny. In fact, when Seinfeld 's tv show went off the air it was uniformly lauded for being so ground-breaking and successful even though it was, "just a bunch of neurotic New Yorkers sitting around an apartment; just a show about nothing." The New York Times helpfully countered by pointing out that Neil Simon had been writing plays of that exact ilk for years.
From Vaudeville on, so much in American comedy is based on rhythms. A lot of American comedy today (stand-up, sit coms, and even things like South Park) is based on not only on the comedic situations involved but, perhaps more importantly, on the economy of words and the rhythm of the punch lines. There's a science to this, and Simon gets that. Too many syllables and the joke falls flat. Change just one word in the sentence and it triggers a laugh not present before. Simon has even said that some words may be considered inherently funny. Consonant plosives - that is words that start suddenly or "explosively" - p, b, t, d, k, and g - are often considered the funniest sounds in the English language. In the 1996 video Caesar's Writers, Simon discusses writing for Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows, and a skit in which Imogene Coca places a bet on a roulette wheel. For an hour the writers tried out various numbers before deciding "32" was the funniest number Coca could say. With such craftsmanship, how could any of that be considered merely funny?
In that great tradition Prisoner of 2nd Avenue is very non-merely funny, in part because it's also surprisingly moving and very timely. You'll see echoes of The Out of Towners, The Odd Couple, and maybe even Barefoot in the Park, and you'll also see some of the darker themes present in Simon plays like Lost in Yonkers and The Dinner Party. At its heart, Prisoner is about the struggle of a man and his wife to cope with the pressures of the day - finances, employment, marriage, family, and even noisy slash nasty neighbors. The couple uses humor as one of their great unitive resources and as one of their best defenses.
That's something I imagine many of us relate to.
I know I laugh it a lot.