November 15, 2019

A touch of George in Alexander’s ‘Prisoner’

Jason Alexander immediately apologizes for his voice when he comes to the phone.

He’s hoarse because he’s been yelling nonstop for his current role, Mel Edison, in the darkly comic “Prisoner of Second Avenue,” which is in the midst of a three-week run at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood. The show closes May 15.

“I’ll do my best to talk though,” he said.

Neil Simon’s semiautobiographical “Prisoner,” set in 1971 in an Upper East Side New York apartment, begins in the middle of the night. An anxiety-ridden Mel is unable to sleep and is, well, freaking out. The weather is hot,  the neighbors are too noisy, and, as he tells his wife, he thinks he’s going to lose his job.

When the middle-age executive does find himself unemployed, he becomes paranoid and suffers a nervous breakdown.

Alexander concedes that Mel is similar to the role for which he’s best known: George Costanza on “Seinfeld.”

“Their emotions run very hot, and they don’t edit themselves very much. George is thought of as a neurotic, a demonstrative neurotic. Mel is a guy who is battling a crisis, and it’s driving him to have a nervous breakdown. Both characters carry a similar energy. Both characters come from New York,” Alexander said.

But the 51-year-old actor is quick to add: “I think that’s where the comparisons end. What you get of Mel at the end of the play is a guy whose heart you can really see. I could be wrong — fans of ‘Seinfeld’ know more about ‘Seinfeld’ than the people who were on the show do — but I don’t think we ever saw the kindness and sensitivity in George. As a general rule, the ‘Seinfeld’ writers shooed off those things.”

The heart of “Prisoner” comes out through Mel’s relationship with his wife, Edna, played by Gina Hecht — Alexander’s friend for more than 20 years and the godmother of his children. The two met in 1987 when they co-starred on the short-lived NBC sitcom “Everything’s Relative.”

For years, Alexander and Hecht wanted to resurrect “Prisoner” and star together. It was just a question of when.

“What we believe and what audiences seem to echo for us is that the situation and the language and the emotions that run through the play, a play that was written in 1971, seem to have a resonance for too many people [with what] is going on right now,” Alexander said.

Alexander grew up in a middle-class Jewish-Italian neighborhood in New Jersey, and “Prisoner” brings him back to that upbringing.

“I don’t want to be ego-racist about it, but I don’t think most non-Jews or non-Italians get the playing of [Neil Simon’s] material as well as Jews and Italians do,” he said. “There’s a certain energy of a Jewish family, an Italian family, the music and rhythms of their language, that is just … we get Neil Simon’s material better.”

Alexander recalled seeing “Prisoner” with his family when the play first premiered in 1971. He was 12 years old, and he remembers identifying with Mel’s Jewish family.

“Before the lights came on, we knew those people. We knew that family,” he said. “That is a bona fide, by-the-numbers Jewish New York family.”

Alexander’s passion for theater comes out in his creative and professional choices — he has been the artistic director of Reprise Theatre Company, an L.A.-based nonprofit, for the past four years and has appeared on and off-Broadway in nearly two dozen shows, including Stephen Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along,” “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway,” for which he won a Tony award, and Mel Brooks’ “The Producers.” But he says that he would welcome a return to television.

“I’d be happy to go back in a series, but there hasn’t been one where I wanted it and it wanted me,” Alexander said.

“Seinfeld” turned Alexander into a household name. And while he’s had some memorable turns on shows like “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Everybody Hates Chris,” he has weathered disappointment when his sitcoms “Bob Patterson” (2001) and “Listen Up!” (2004-2005) were canceled in their first season.

“A career has its own momentum and its own shape,” he said reflectively, “and I do the best I can to try and be proactive in it, but it is in many ways something that gets left to the fates a little bit.”

And yet, in a very un-George, very un-Mel way, Alexander talks about theater as if he’s never been happier.

“Theater, to me,” he said, “it’s like going home.”