Chatting and sipping her cup of tea at NoHo’s Pitfire Café south of El Portal Theatre, Gina Hecht exudes the proper edgy East Coast aura to portray Edna Edison, the distaff half opposite Jason Alexander’s Mel Edison in Neil Simon’s The Prisoner of Second Avenue. They are the life-embattled Upper East Side Manhattanites who populate the playwright’s 1971 dark comedy.
Hecht confides, “I know people think I’m from New York because of the way I talk, but I’m from Houston, Texas. My dad was from New York. I guess I get it from him. And, of course, I have spent some time in New York.” (Her first name Gina, by the way, is pronounced with a hard ‘g’ as in “gingham”, followed by the same “ee” vowel sound as in most other pronunciations of Gina).
Though Prisoner was written in the early ’70s, the plot seems quite relevant to today’s societal challenges. Mel has just lost his job after many years and now has to cope with being unemployed in middle-age. Edna must cope with Mel. Exacerbating their lives are a summer heat wave, a prolonged garbage strike, noisy neighbors, the din from the streets, a robbery and their own deteriorating emotional stability.
Hecht affirms, “I think the play is more current right now than perhaps it was the day Neil Simon wrote it. When I read this play, except for the prices of things, and some references that are very 70s, I felt it was so relevant to today’s world. People relate today to the same issues brought up in the play: our country, the economy, unemployment, desperation. What are you gonna do when everything starts falling apart: the choices, the madness, the fear? I so relate to Edna. I think this is one of the most delicious roles I’ve ever played.”
Hecht has certainly received affirmation for her work on stage, on TV and in films since relocating to LA in the early ’80s. Locally, she co-starred in the premiere of Bill C. Davis’ Wrestlers, opposite the playwright and TV star Mark Harmon (and later George Clooney). Other stage work includes Circle of Will and Night Owls, for which she was recipient of LA Weekly Awards.
She has been featured in over a dozen films including Night Shift (with Henry Winkler) and more recently Seven Pounds (with Will Smith). Television work includes recurring roles on Mork and Mindy, Heartbeat, Everything’s Relative, Life Goes On, The District, Any Day Now, Seinfeld and Hung.
Aside from Hecht’s great respect for Prisoner, she is ecstatic to be working on stage with Alexander. “We have been such close friends for so long, I think of him as my husband but without the sex. [Hecht is very happily married to someone else and is the mother of two.] Jason and I were both struggling actors together in New York. We even appeared on a local TV series together back then. Jason is my man.”
Although Alexander is best known for his role as George Costanza on TV’s long-running series Seinfeld, he began his acting career on the New York stage, appearing in several Broadway plays and musicals including Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, Kander and Ebb’s The Rink, Rupert Holmes’ Accomplice, Neil Simon’s Broadway Bound and Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, for which he won the 1989 Tony Award for best actor in a musical. Alexander appeared in the LA production of The Producers with Martin Short at the Pantages Theatre and is currently the artistic director of Reprise Theatre Company.
Also sealing the deal for Hecht is the opportunity to work again with Glenn Casale who helmed her in Wrestlers and Night Owls. “Glenn is the perfect director for this play,” she avows. “He is so good at working with actors to discover the moment-to-moment emotional evolution in the relationships of characters. That is so important in this play.
“Prisoners is very funny. It is also very dark. But the core of all of that is Edna and Mel love each other very much. This is a loving relationship. It finds them in crises and takes you on a roller coaster ride of what he is going through and how she deals with him while also dealing with everything else. There are all these little traps an actor can fall into. Glenn is so patient as he aids us in working through the situations to make it all so viable in the moment.”
Casale, who also relocated to LA in the ’80s, has had an admirable directing career, highlighted by his staging of Peter Pan (starring Cathy Rigby) on Broadway, a production that was nominated for a Tony Award for best revival and later filmed by A&E, garnering two Emmy Awards. Aside from steering an array of local productions, including Reprise’s Ovation-winning Anything Goes, Casale has directed internationally numerous times, including productions of The Wiz (Netherlands) and Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (Netherlands, Berlin, Antwerp, Madrid). Casale is also the artistic director of the California Musical Theatre in Sacramento.
“Even before formal rehearsals began on April 5, Jason and I got together a couple of times on our own, with Glenn, to talk through it,” Hecht recalls. “Neither of us wanted just a two-week rehearsal on this. I knew that was not enough time for me to be comfortable. I love to rehearse and always want to go way beyond the allotted time.”
Although the main focus of the play is centered on the embattled Edisons, there are a number of satellite characters swirling about the action, portrayed by Annie Korzen, Ron Orbach, DeeDee Rescher and Carole Ita White. “Maybe it says something about me that I am finding it so comfortable to be within the environment of this work, the characters, the situation, the setting, everything,” Hecht chuckles. “We are keeping it set in the ’70s and it is all working. I’m happy. I’m just sorry we are only running for three weeks.”
The Prisoner of Second Avenue, produced by Tom Brocato for Butterfield Road Productions, opens April 23; plays Wed., 2 and 8 pm; Thur.-Fri., 8 pm; Sat., 2 and 8 pm; Sun., 2 and 7 pm; through May 15. Tickets: $45-$80. El Portal Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. 866-611-4111, 818-508-4200 or www.elportaltheatre.com.