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Casale and Orbach find the comedy within the drama

April 20, 2011

Glenn Casale

 “Neil Simon’s plays are set in truth,” observes Glenn Casale (Peter Pan). He directs Jason Alexander, Gina Hecht [that’s Gina with a hard ‘g’] and Ron Orbach in The Prisoner of Second Avenue at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood. 

“If you just trust his words, the humor will come. You don’t have to push it or lay on top of it. You just have to find out the truth of the characters and what they’re going through.” 

It’s a step easy to overlook and, instead, allow characters to become caricatures. And this is not one of Neil Simon’s all-out comedies; rather, it looks at a crisis moment in a couple’s marriage. Casale says, “A guy loses his job. This is a guy and woman who gave up their nice life living outside the city to move into the Upper Eastside which gives them less space, less light, more confinement and now they can’t afford that because he loses his job. I try to approach it by looking at what it would be like to live in this apartment and feeling trapped, closed in and stripped of your identity.” 

The line between comedy and tragedy can be quite narrow. “Neil Simon’s characters all have senses of humor,” notes Casale. “We find the humor in the tragedy. Also we find the sense of humor when you put it on the basic level of a husband and wife just relating to each other. The situation sets up the humor. If you keep it light and keep it real, all the jokes work.” 

Ron Orbach

Ron Orbach, who plays Alexander’s brother, agrees. “It’s a rule of thumb: if you’re playing a drama, search valiantly for the comedy. If you’re playing a drama, search valiantly for the comedy.” Comedy, he says, is always based in truth and in very real human emotions of pain and loss and fear and anger and jealousy. “The only difference from why it is funny in one piece and tragic in another,” he finds, “is how you frame it. There’s a commitment that you have to play comedy with. If you don’t play it with enough conviction and commitment, it doesn’t work.” 

In some cases, Orbach says, it means just attacking the language. “In Neil’s case, it’s so crucial that we hear the words” and not get in the way with unnecessary movement. “Actors will tend to move aimlessly. Glenn has been great about stripping away the movement and you realize you don’t need it. Behavior, yes. Movement with a purpose, yes. But with Neil’s language, sometimes just sitting there and getting out of the way and making sure every word is heard works.” 

‘Just sitting there’ brought us to a conversation about Orbach’s friend, Jeff Daniels, who perfected ‘just sitting there’ in God of Carnage now at the Ahmanson. “You don’t need to move when the character says ‘let me have a drink’. There has to be a specific reason to move – to hit someone or kiss someone. But to just move because you feel like, oh gee, the audience is getting bored and I’m just standing here, I should move, is counter-productive. When the language is rich, it’ll just distract.” 

Orbach, whose cousin is the late Jerry Orbach, is now in his fourth Neil Simon play. He remembers working with director Jerry Zaks on another one, Laughter on the 23rd Floor. “He was such a stickler. I learned so much about comedy rules from him like don’t spin, meaning [don’t elongate words in the beginning of the line but instead] get to the end of the line. Usually the last three or four words is where the gold is. Sometimes actors will spin the words early in lines and run out of breath by the time they’re at the end. They sabotage the play and themselves by doing so.” 

Other rules, Orbach says, include pass the ball, which means send the idea of the line to the actor you’re working with. “Pass it with crispness, purpose and authority because the set-up is everything. If you set it up properly you can lay that punch line in with the greatest of ease. But if the set-up isn’t there, you’re not going to get the laugh.” 

Another important rule is to follow the script. “Neil’s plays are so brilliantly crafted. You change one word and you find the rhythm is off” – a mistake often made during memorization. “It’s absolutely science. Just honor the rules and he will take care of you.” 

In the case of The Prisoner on Second Avenue, Orbach and Casale agree the issues are profound and impactful. “There are real moments of sentiment, not sentimentality,” says Orbach. “The characters are expressing some deep emotion. At the end of the play, things are revealed about the brothers’ relationship and family dynamics that are very touching and moving. They brilliantly set up the next moment which is a zinger, a beautiful comic turn.” 

Casale sets the play in the early 1970s replete with period clothing and hair. There was no Internet then, no on-line bill pay. “But in terms of money, the issues are the same today. We’re supposed to have a three-to-six-month cushion in our savings. This guy has no cushion and two daughters in college. What makes it more powerful today is that we just know so much more about the economy and the economic crisis.” 

The Prisoner of Second Avenue with Tony Award winner Jason Alexander, Gina Hecht and Ron Orbach runs April 21 – May 15 at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood. (866) 811-4111 or visit elportaltheatre.com.

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