Thursday, August 6, 2009

Thursday Night in Bay Ridge: "The Prisoner of Second Avenue" at the Narrows Botanical Gardens

This evening we moseyed over to Bay Ridge to a green spot that didn't exist - was basically a (literal) dump - when we were growing up. Now it's a little oasis, the Narrows Botanical Gardens, where we went back to that time of our early twenties and New York City's nadir with a free showing of the 1975 film of Neil Simon's recession-relevant comedy The Prisoner of Second Avenue.

It was great to be back in what for us seems so familiar. Although we didn't grow up close to Bay Ridge, it always felt like the neighborhood we lived in. Non-brownstone Broooklyn may never be as pretty as where the writers, artists and musicians are, but for us, it's home, a place of comfort.

But not comfort stations. So we were smart to get off the G train and Fulton Street and make a pit stop at the Atlantic Terminal before taking the D and R trains to Bay Ridge Avenue, because there wasn't a working bathroom in sight at the Narrows Botanic Gardens or the nearby beautiful pier or Owl Creek Park. We wondered what other older people, and little kids, do.

This is obviously a sign of our age, but the crowd at the movie had as many people over 45 as it did younger ones. The weird thing seems to be that the younger the crowd, the more bathrooms supplied by the local park. The pool parties at East River State Park seem to have plenty of facilities, though to be fair, they do serve a lot of beer.

Okay, that's our bathroom rant. We got off the R train and waited for either the B1 or B9 bus to take us to Shore Boulevard. It was nice to see the kind of block we remember in the old Bay Ridge of our youth, when they still taught Norwegian to the girls at Bay Ridge High School and we walked around in our underwear at Fort Hamilton for our draft physical. (No connection between the two events.)

For some great Bay Ridge online tours, go to Kevin Walsh's indispensible Forgotten New York for "Leifs That Are Green" and "Bay Ridge Fever."

Getting off the bus by Xaverian High School, we were amazed by the Narrows Botanical Gardens. The prose on its website description is a little too fuchsia for us, but we agree with its thrust:
Since 1995, this verdant collection of hills, pathways, and gorgeous harbor views has blossomed into a lush conservatory of nature’s beauty and brilliance, providing an unequaled opportunity to stroll amid fragrant blossoms bustling with butterflies, a bubbling brook where turtles sun on the rocks, majestic Redwood trees that seem to touch the sky, and delicate orchids growing wild in a Native Plant Garden. Linger at our city’s only roadside lily pond, or promenade through the towering Linden Tree AllĂ©e. Snap portraits at the picturesque Rock Wall bench, or find meditative calm in the Zen Garden. . .

And, when you have visited the Narrows Botanical Gardens, strolled its pathways and smelled its roses, you will be amazed to learn it is wholly created by, built by, and nurtured and maintained by volunteers, making the Narrows Botanical Gardens one of the largest community gardens in our great City of New York.

This used to be a vast wasteland, a no-person's land, if we recall correctly from the bad old days.

A Russian sign stood in this little garden. We wonder what it says.

It's a big change, thanks to the volunteers who must have put in hours and weeks of hard work.

They were just setting up the screen when we arrived in the meadow.

The crowd ended up fairly small for the large meadow, maybe 100-125 or so. (Oddly, we learned about this event from the hipster-centric L Magazine, which has a suspiciously large number of Bay Ridge events or references, so we assume a staffer lives around here.)

There was a stand selling refreshments.

Despite the demographic changes, this is still the Brooklyn we grew up in: New York City as small-town America. Like these people looking out at the Verrazano Narrows Bridge.

The book cover from our forthcoming Autumn in Brooklyn also features the bridge, which opened when we were 13.

We had time to walk on the nearby pier.

Strollers (the kind with two legs) co-existed with strollers containing tots, fishermen, and people in wheelchairs,

on skateboards, skates, scooters

and bikes - including a little girl whose training wheels have just come off.

"Vamos, vamos," her dad encouraged her, reminding us of how Grandpa Herb guided us on our two-wheeler in an empty Rockaway parking lot (back at the bungalow court we were still unsteady enough to collide with an old man in his walker).

On our way to Owl's Head Park, boys appeared to be playing the dozens in Arabic. We moved on.

We walked around the park we last encountered in a mound of 1970s snow and watched a little of girls' soccer.

Back at the botanical gardens, they took their time for the film to start, selling 50/50 raffle tickets and handing out the flyer with the gardens' events (this was the last of three summer films, but there are art shows coming up and a harvest festival and Halloween canine costume contest in the fall).

"What movie is playing tonight?" said a passing woman of a certain age with two little girls.

"The Prisoner of Second Avenue, the 1970s Neil Simon comedy," we said.

"Oh, the one with Peter Falk. . . Sorry, girls, this is a picture for grown-ups, not kids," she told her charges.

Actually, Peter Falk starred in the Broadway production, but we understood her mistake.

To be honest, we can't recall if we saw the film of The Prisoner of Second Avenue in a theater or not. When it came out, we were in our second of four semesters in Brooklyn College's nascent MFA in creative writing program and were teaching our first freshman comp class downtown at LIU right after our Tuesday/Thursday BC fiction workshops.

But we saw it later on TV for sure and reread it in the mid-1990s, when we were working as a staff attorney at the Center for Governmental Responsibility in Gainesville, Florida. We contributed one of the 16 essays (ours is on Simon's gay characters) to the 1997 Neil Simon: A Casebook, edited by Gary Konas, and in researching it, so we read all of Simon's plays to date, including The Prisoner of Second Avenue.

Surprisingly, while it evokes another era and has a sitcom-ish feel, the work doesn't seem as dated as we thought it might. It's aged better than some of Simon's earlier comedies.

Just yesterday, the New York Times featured a review of the play, "Downsized Before There Was a Word for It," in which Charles Isherwood noted that the current Berkshire Theater Festival production doesn't seem so outdated:
There are no jobs for 47-year-old men,” wails the newly and miserably unemployed Mel Edison in Neil Simon’s temper-tantrum comedy “The Prisoner of Second Avenue.” The plaintive cry elicits robust chuckles of sympathy from audiences at the Berkshire Theater Festival here, where this play from 1971 has been revived during our own summer of seething economic angst.

“Is the whole world going out of business?” moans Mel’s equally beleaguered wife, Edna, when she too is faced with sudden job loss.

Boy, do we feel your pain, Mel and Edna. The trials endured by this middle-class Manhattan couple, portrayed with keening intensity by the talented actors Stephen DeRosa and Veanne Cox, strike a distinctly contemporary chord. Noisy neighbors, wailing sirens, burglaries and fridges on the fritz may be the wallpaper of urban-nightmare stories from the 1970s, but the larger troubles Mel and Edna face have a potently topical punch in this timely revival, directed by Warner Shook. As the nerve-rattling struggles of the Edisons remind us, green shoots of hope can be hard to discern when the world around you seems like a blasted heath.

Here is the original March 15, 1975 New York Times review of the film by someone named A.H. Weiler:
If Neil Simon's adaptation of his 1971 Broadway hit, "The Prisoner of Second Avenue," which arrived at the Sutton yesterday, is less than an overpowering study of a married couple driven to distraction by the irritations and indignities of local middle-class living, it still scores valid points, both serious and funny. This time, the largely farcical kind of Manhattan madnesses Mr. Simon observed in his 1970 film, "The Out-of-Towners," have the impact of reality that has been humanely dulled by injections of relevant comedy.

Comparisons are odious, but it should be noted that the play hasn't been changed appreciably in its transition to the screen. And, if Melvin Frank's direction is polished but not innovative, he is ably aided by a cast headed by Jack Lemmon and Anne Bancroft, who project forcefully natural characterization that are as realistic as the authentic Second Avenue and other New York sites caught by the color cameras.

As in the original, New York is hardly a wonderful town for Mr. Simon's principals. Mr. Lemmon is frustrated and anxiety-ridden because of the faulty air-conditioning and inconsiderate neighbors in his high-rise apartment house, among other things. And, his fraying nerves aren't helped much when he is dismissed by his faltering firm. As a jobless ad executive, he cannot be blamed for railing at an unemployment office clerk. And he shouldn't be criticized for banging on fragile walls, cursing the neighbors, who douse him with water in retaliation, and developing neuroses inflamed by enforced idleness and visits to a non-committal psychiatrist.

If Anne Bancroft, as his truly loving helpmate who resolutely gets a job to support them, becomes tense and confused to the point of paranoia, she, too, can't be faulted for her rising fears when she loses that job and must decide whether to accept financial help from her husband's concerned, if questioning, relatives.

The audience at the botanic gardens - well, except for maybe a couple - weren't expecting to see Sylvester Stallone in the film:

Mr. Lemmon, no stranger to Mr. Simon's work ("The Odd Couple," "The Out-of-Towners"), and Miss Bancroft are simply an unromanticized, believable team as recognizable in their comic and serious give-and-take as many of New York's scrambling millions. And they get sturdy, pointed support from Gene Saks, as Mr. Lemmon's well-to-do, plain-speaking but doting older brother and Elizabeth Wilson and Florence Stanley, as his careful sisters, among others.

They aren't involved in Greek tragedy or in common-place television situation comedy. Mr. Simon is serious about a theme that isn't earth-shaking and he understandably cloaks its gravity with genuine chuckles that pop up mostly as radio news bulletins such as the flash that a Polish freighter has just run into the Statue of Liberty. And, with a cast whose members appreciate what they're saying and doing, the gnawing problems of "Second Avenue" become a pleasure.

The night out in Bay Ridge really did prove a pleasure to us (even more so after we used the restroom at the Starbucks on Third Avenue before getting on the R and G trains back to Williamsburg). We're grateful for the Narrows Botanical Gardens and its volunteers for the fun and the memories.

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