After a decade of portraying George Costanza on "Seinfeld," Jason Alexander is so right for the role of Mel Edison—complaining, neurotic New Yorker in "The Prisoner of Second Avenue"—that it feels as though Neil Simon created the role for him. Of course, the actor was only 12 in 1971, when Simon's urban comedy debuted on Broadway. Alexander's signature fits of exasperated sarcasm and irritation inject about as much humor as possible into this uneven Simon play, and Alexander's work is greatly enhanced by co-star Gina Hecht as Mel's wife, Edna.
Much of the pair's best work comes in the play's first—and most tightly written—scene, in which we learn that Mel is starting to lose his marbles. City life in a high-rise apartment, along with the possibility of losing his job, is keeping him up late, and his wife can do nothing to stop his whining. The supporting characters, appearing only in the second act, are Mel's three sisters (Carole Ita White, Annie Korzen, Deedee Rescher), and his brother, Harry (Ray Wills), who visit, ostensibly, to provide financial and emotional support.
Director Glenn Casale, who drives the pace to keep the play to a tidy two hours, anchors the tone in reality. He doesn't push for the laughs, which accentuates the funnier moments, but the reserved direction shows the flaws in Simon's second act, in particular the addition of the one-dimensional siblings.
Still, it's worth sitting through the disjointed and flat moments to watch Alexander's take on Mel. Many of the biggest laughs come without dialogue, thanks to a variety of facial expressions and wild physicality, as Alexander looks like he's about to explode. The play is as much about the strength of Edna, whose life revolves around her husband's. Hecht displays honest devotion without making Edna seem less important than her husband. Though there's little romance, Hecht, Alexander, and Casale have found the love story in Simon's comedy.
Presented by and at the El Portal Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Apr. 23–May 15. Wed., 2 & 8 p.m.; Thu.–Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m. (866) 811-4111. www.elportaltheatre.com.