Yet Another Prisoner of Second Avenue

(This review appeared in The EastAfrican 25th June-1st July 2012)

Joe Kinyua as Mel Photo by Friends Theatre Ensemble
Joe Kinyua as Mel Photo by Friends Theatre Ensemble

For Better Or For Wife, the Friends Ensemble adaptation of Neil Simon’s Prisoner of Second Avenue (1971) opened to an impressively full house at the Wangari Maathai Auditorium at Alliance Française on 15th June for a run of 7 shows packed into three days.

Directed by Peter Kawa, Sam Psenjen and Ellis Otieno (and not Linus Odhiambo and Vincent Zicoh as indicated on the poster) this is the second adaptation of the play in Nairobi in less than a year, perhaps owing to its universal theme of economic crisis and subsequent unemployment.

It is not just in Nairobi that the play seems popular. Having run for 800 shows when it premiered in Broadway in 1971 it was revived in London’s West End in 2010 at the height of the global economic crisis. Better Pill Productions staged an adaptation of the play under the title Out of Business at the Ukumbi Mdogo of the Kenya National Theatre in October last year with Peter Kawa as  Mel and  Fakina Awuor as Edna.

Mwihaki, Amunga, Nyakenya and Tharau in For Better or For Wife (Prisoner of Second Avenue) Photo by Friends Theatre Ensemble
Mwihaki, Amunga, Nyakenya and Tharau in For Better or For Wife (Prisoner of Second Avenue) Photo by Friends Theatre Ensemble

In the Friends Ensemble adaptation, which had the advantage of a more amenable stage, Joe Kinyua portrays a less cynical Mel than Kawa did. Mel in this case is forty-one years old, and not forty-seven as in the original script, and having been recently laid off from work, spends his days wiling time away in their 7th floor flat in Ngara leading, to his eventual nervous breakdown.

His wife Edna (Doreen Mwajuma) takes up a secretarial job and becomes the breadwinner, but she too is eventually laid off when the company she works for becomes bankrupt and there is another reversal of roles as Mel recovers from his breakdown and Edna reaches the brink of her sanity.

During the time of Mel’s illness, his up-country siblings- three doting but frugal sisters Pauline (Ray Mwihaki), Joyce (Carol Tharau) and Judith (Prisca Nyakenya) and a mildly indignant brother Harry (Derrick Amunga) come to his rescue. Edna suggests however, that instead of his siblings giving Mel 250,000 shillings towards his medical bill- he’s being seen by the best psychiatrist there is- it would be better if they would give him the money to put a deposit on a one-million-shilling plot of land in Naivasha which would allow Mel and herself to leave the city and run a children’s camp.  They think the idea is ridiculous but later, Harry comes back and offers a now sane Mel the money, which the latter turns down.

The cast effectively deliver most of Simon’s punch lines, but the script seems to have been reduced, excluding many memorable lines like Mel’s “It is October now, my whole team is in school” (when Edna suggests football as a pastime activity) to which he adds “I am seven years older than our goal-keeper’s father.”

Kinyua and Mwajuma in For Better or For Wife (Prisoner of Second Avenue) photo by Friends Theatre Ensemble
Kinyua and Mwajuma in For Better or For Wife (Prisoner of Second Avenue) photo by Friends Theatre Ensemble

Despite being nominated for best play, best director and best supporting actor in the 1972 Tony Awards, in its recent revival, the play has been criticised for being rather unrealistic especially in view of Mel’s almost miraculous recovery. Michael Billington in The Guardian says “it’s as if Death of a Salesman had been rewritten by Mr Pickwick.” In the same breath, Dominic Cavendish in The Telegraph accuses Neil Simon (who Billington describes as ‘a servant of Broadway’) of “(rooting) the universal experience of chronic insecurity in an altogether local desire to please a Broadway audience.” And adds, “what the evening delivers in clever one-liners, it lacks in corresponding emotional thoroughness.”

However, going by the atmosphere at the Wangari Maathai Auditorium on the evening of 15th June, I doubt that such observations and the play’s implied aesthetic deficiencies would have any sway on a Nairobi audience for whom, even the bleakest situation is best handled with a good laugh. And I expect that Prisoner of Second Avenue will be back soon, at a theatre near you, under another cleverly disguised name.

© Anne Manyara 2012

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