Out of Business

(This review appeared in The EastAfrican November 7-13, 2011)

Peter Kawa and Fakira Awuor as Mel and Edna in an adaptation of Neil Simon’s Prisoner of Second Avenue

“The way I see things, life is both sad and funny. I can’t imagine a comical situation that isn’t at the same time also painful. I used to ask myself: What is a humorous situation? Now I ask: What is a sad situation and how can I tell it humorously?” These words, by the prolific American playwright and screenwriter, Neil Simon are reflected in his play Prisoner of Second Avenue whose adaptation, going by the title Out of Business I watched at the Kenya Cultural Centre concert hall on Sunday 30th September.

The text, being of good quality, enables the cast to bring forth well-rounded characters and allows the audience to laugh what is a rather heart-rending situation.37 year-old Mel (Peter Kawa) has just lost his job, though it is some days before he discloses this to his wife Edna (Fakira Awuor).

When Edna finds a job, to make ends meet, Mel whiles his time away in the flat, all day. Edna pops in at lunch time, as she always does, much to Mel’s chagrin, to prepare his lunch. “The only people in this building who have their lunch fixed for them,” he moans to Edna, “are myself and the four year old girl on the second floor.”

Edna urges him to play football to pass time since it is a sport he loves, he replies cynically, “It is October now, my whole team is in school,’ and then adds “I am seven years older than our goal-keeper’s father.”

Then he starts telling Edna about a ‘highly sophisticated and well-executed plot against this country,” and that “they” are all out to get him. When Edna asks who ‘they’ are, he replies, “the human race” with a chuckle that confirms that he has eventually succumbed to a complete nervous breakdown.

Ogawo, Mumbi, Mwihaki and Mwaniki in Mwaniki’s adaptation of Neil Simon’s Prisoner of Second Avenue

This is probably one of the most spot-on adaptations I have seen in Nairobi in a long time. The play is originally set in Manhattan, New York, but the themes of unemployment and a declining economy make it’s adaptation to a Nairobi setting valid and genuine.

Mel is 47 in the original script but in this adaptation he is 37 signalling that the director, Edijoe Mwaniki aims this play at the hard-working up-and coming corporate Nairobian, who believes his role as the bread winner.

When Mel’s brother Harry (Edijoe Mwaniki) and his sisters Pauline(Grace Ogawo), Pearl (Ruth Mumbi) and Jessie (Sarah Mwihaki) come from Eldoret to discuss Mel’s mental health with Edna, their costume portrays the up-country middle class. The sibling rivalry between the two brothers, the doting interference of older sisters and Edna’s alienation from the rest of the family is all too familiar to a Kenyan audience.

The set reflects the inside of the sort of flat in Nairobi where one has ‘suspicious neighbours’, water shortages and uncollected garbage. “Let’s leave the city…let’s leave this place” Edna urges Mel. Awuor’s articulate English accent conveys an upper-middle class Nairobi girl leaving a little below what she’s accustomed to out of love for her husband. She has her sights set on living in Kwale or a running a holiday camp for children in Naivasha.

Acting the role of a mad man is not as easy as one would think. To be convincingly mad without over-acting and stereotyping madness is not the only challenge that Kawa overcomes in playing Mel. He starts off sane but frustrated, then we see his lucidity gradually ebbing away until he is completely mad and then in the final act he is once again sane and supportive of Edna who is finally caving into all the pressure.

The cast was well-directed, with easy and natural movement on stage, in this first-rate performance by Kawa and the rest of the cast including Ruth Mumbi who, for an understudy, settled brilliantly into her role.

Prisoner of Second Avenue run for 800 shows when in was first performed in Broadway in 1971 and was made into a film in 1975 based on Simon’s screenplay. It’s revival in USA and UK in the last two years has been well received, going by reviews in the New York times, the current global economic crisis making it very pertinent.

© Anne Manyara 2011

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