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LETTERS TO EDITOR
45 Seconds From Broadway
With 45 Seconds from Broadway Mr. Simon is back to doing what he does best: straight comedy peppered with one-liners. To insure that his many fans will get all the chuckles they came for, he 's created a leading man who is close enough to Jackie Mason to set some people wondering whether Mason is actually in the show but out for the night with Lewis J. Stadlen substituting for him.
The hook on which Simon hangs what is essentially a bouquet to the Broadway of his heyday, is the Edison Hotel coffeee Shop, a.k.a. The Polish Cafe. As the Polish Cafe is something more than just a coffeee shop, but considerably less than a four or even three star restaurant, 45 Seconds From Broadway deserves more than a coffee shop rating, but less than such Simon gems as Brighton Beach Memoirs, The Sunshine Boys and Lost In Yonkers. The authentic setting offers enough nostalgia and opportunities to have a parade of comfortably familiar comic characters march in and out of John Lee Beatty's fabulous re-creation of one corner of the real cafe. That set, which includes a view of forty-sixth street and for that extra New York-New York feeling, a yellow taxi cab, is gorgeously lit by Paul Gallo to show the changing of seasons for the play's four scenes.
As a frequent visitor to the Edison, I can attest to the fact that the matzoh balls are as big as tennis balls and that you are likely to be rubbing shoulders with actors (I've sighted the real Jackie Mason several times) , producers and playwrights along with suburban theater mavens like Arleen (Alix Korey) and Cindy (Judy Blazer) who provide some of the biggest laughs in this cross between Terence Rattigan's Separate Tables and the dining room of Fawlty Towers.
Besides Lewis J. Stadlen's Mickey Fox, the Jackie Mason character who holds center stage (Stadlen is a kinder, gentler, younger but nevertheless a dead-ringer physically and vocally), and the already mentioned on the town ladies, the people wandering in and out of the cafe include: Bernie (a well-cast Louis Zorich), the proprietor whose kindness extends to free meals and jobs for budding playwrights and actresses (here a proud young South African played by Kevin Carroll, and Julie Lund in an auspicious Broadway debut even if in a standard issue new girl in town part). . . Rayleen, an upscale Manhattan grand dame, who seem to have wandered West from La Cirque to demand (and get) a table cloth and an intricately double brewed cup of tea (Marian Seldes the grandest and funniest grand dame around town more or less steals the show by playing herself). . . Rayleen's husband, Charles W. Browning III (Bill Moor, a terrific and nearly mute foil for his loquacious Madame).
To maintain the flavor of a busy, bustling place we also have Bernie's wife Zelda (Rebecca Schull); Andrew Duncan (Dennis Creaghan), a British impresario who is trying to make a deal for Mickey to do a show in London; and Bessie James (Lynda Gravatt), a New York actress who seems to be in this play strictly to voice some of the author's show biz beliefs and give Mickey a chance to explain why remarks like "Hello, Bess, where's Porgie?" is just part of his brand of equal-opportunity insult humor.
Oh, yes, there's an additional player, though he doesn't show up until the second act. This is another Fox, Mickey 's older brother Harry from Philadelphia (David Margulies). Margulies arrives just in time, since his scene with Stadlen is the first sign of a real play. Margulies' plea for Mickey to help his son become the comedian he so desperately wants to be has some of the emotion though none of the deep-seated bitterness of Arthur Miller's The Price. But one scene of familial conflict softened by genuine affection (a feeling Simon displays for all his characters) does not save the play from feeling like little more than a series of incidents. There are two additional plot threads -- the first involving Bernie's ill-advised sale of the restaurant so he can move his hard-working wife to Florida (which she hates) and the second about Solomon Mantutu's play (that's the starving South African playwright). Unfortunately, while Jerry Zaks ably juggles these plot threads they are stitched into a threadbare plot.
The threads that do add considerably to the pleasures of the production are the costumes designed by William Ivey Long, most notably a patchwork fur coat in which Marian Seldes makes three grand entrances. That coat is a wonderful sight gag that prompts apt comments from various cast members: "With that coat she cleaned out the Bronx Zoo", from Mickey. . . "I've seen that coat. It's from The Lion King", from Arleen (who with her pal Cindy is also splendidly and wittily attired) . . . "I made it myself -- it started as a bolero and just grew", from Seldes.
And so, with a handsome, well-acted production and plenty of Simon zingers, there's much to enjoy if you don't make too many demands in terms of characterization and story development. If you enjoy the atmosphere on stage, remember that the real Polish Cafe is literally just 45 seconds away. Though you'd have to be Marian Seldes to get them to double brew your tea, you can, as Mickey Fox puts it, have "a trifle or a substantial." -- which also describes what the play is and is not.
CurtainUp Reviews of Other Neil Simon PLays
Hotel Suite Little Me
The Odd Couple (Female Version)
The Sunshine Boys
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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