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Gobsmacking Warner Shook

Author's note:  Just a little awkward to be talking about the local theater scene when one of the major artistic talents behind Intiman finds out that "his" theater is going bankrupt.  Happy ending: Intiman did manage to reorganize in a summer theater festival model. And this Prisoner deserved every ovation.

Warner Shook can’t believe the reception that Prisoner of Second Avenue receives nightly from the Seattle audiences at ACT. “After the final blackout, the audience reacts like it is a rock concert: they start yelling and clapping,” said the director of this Neil Simon black comedy. “I’m still a little gobsmacked by how enthusiastic they are.”

The Prisoner of Second Avenue premiered on Broadway in 1971, and the ACT production sticks its characters and their iconic apartment firmly in that period, but the hero’s angst over the slow unraveling of their lives in hard times proves the comedy still has bite beneath its bark.

“It’s powerful stuff,” said Shook, who previously directed a revival of the play in New York. “People come into it not sure what to expect. Maybe they’ve seen the movie (made in 1975) or maybe they are just familiar with Neil Simon comedies.”

The trick to keeping the audience engaged and maybe a bit off balance (“they go very quiet in some sections, and the laughter is very nervous”) is to walk a “very fine edge,” said Shook. “You can’t just play it for laughs. You have to honor the rhythm of Simon’s writing.”

A middle-aged couple, Mel and Edna, veer from personal tragedy inside their apartment to high farce on their balcony throughout the course of Prisoner. Shook stuffed his cast list with a bevy of Seattle acting royalty: Anne Allgood, John Aylward, Julie Briskman, Kimberly King, Cynthia Lauren Tewes, and R. Hamilton Wright.

“I knew Bob (Wright) would be perfect as Mel and Anne as Edna. I’ve cast Anne and Bob as a couple before,” said the director, who served as artistic director of Intiman Theatre from 1993 to 2000 as well as directing numerous productions at other landmark Seattle companies like Empty Space and ACT.

“Yeah, that was poignant, to come back to Seattle as the news is announcing that the theater I founded is closing down,” remarked Shook about Intiman. "It is a very different climate these days, but the arts should be funded. Unfortunately, the boilerplate [of how to do it] that everyone signed up for in the 1960s and 1970s doesn't work any more."

It's a dilemna that the downsized and suddenly redundant Mel might well understand as he huddles in his apartment, listening to radio talk hosts rant about how the problems of the country are the fault of "them" even as Edna asks plantively "but who are them?"

"All the loonies, all the claims that it is a plot to murder the middle class, it's all right there and it was written forty years ago," Shook said. "You can see that things haven't changed that much."