Corrections or additions?

This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the January 9,

2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

`45 Seconds from Broadway’

To explain the show’s title first: There is a coffee

shop (known locally as "the Polish Tea Room") at the Edison

Hotel. From there, it is a 45-second walk to Broadway. I am sorry

to say that I have never sampled the "specialties de la

maison,"

in particular the borscht with boiled potato or chicken soup with

matzo balls, as have many a theater district denizen over the years.

But it is common knowledge that Neil Simon, author of 32 plays

including

"45 Seconds From Broadway," considers himself a faithful

habitue.

Simon’s new comedy, I suspect, will not enjoy a life as long as the

coffee shop that inspired it.

I probably should have popped over to the Edison before the show to

see if designer John Lee Beatty’s realistic setting for the play

glamorizes

or pokes fun at the original. Whatever it evokes, the smell of borscht

can be imagined along with the very real serving of borscht belt humor

that spews mostly from motor-mouthed Mickey Fox (Lewis J. Stadlin),

the play’s central figure. Modeled almost libelously on stand-up

comedian

Jackie Mason, Fox holds court at the coffee shop between performances

of his one-man show that is playing down the block. With everyone

who drops in fair game for his insults, putdowns, and politically

incorrect quips, Fox presides unchallenged by the visiting hoi polloi,

especially by his less abrasive but singularly unfunny brother from

Philadelphia (David Margulies).

Hot to sign Fox for a London run is British producer Andrew Duncan

(Dennis Creaghan) who appears to be the one most amused by the

self-enamoured

comic. Most of the patrons who wander in and out as well as the staff

are disposed to only fitfully interact with each other. Only in one

twist of the non-plot does the action of anyone impact significantly

on another’s life.

While it doesn’t take long to find Stadlin’s audience-pandering

countenance

and staccato delivery (an almost perfect match to Mason) grating,

off-putting, and annoying, it is with the arrival of Rayleen (Marian

Seldes), a scarily eccentric, wildly over-dressed upper West Side

New York matron that things momentarily look bright and hopeful.

Accompanied by her stone-faced husband (Bill Moor),

Seldes milks humor from every mediocre line she has with a florid

gesture. Seldes is an artist who knows how to create and fill a moment

when none actually exists. Her mere act of ordering a pot of tea with

two bags, each a different blend, is an instant classic, and ranks

in the same league with the legendary Beatrice Lilly. As the husband,

Moor also gets credit for provoking laughter without speech. Later

in the play, although the startling reversal in their relationship

doesn’t make any sense, it does add a brief of touch of poignancy

to a play that needs it and more.

For the most part, Simon seems content to follow the comings and

goings

of Megan (Julie Lund), a young acting student from Ohio who lands

a job as a waitress at the coffee shop. Another character who might

be interesting in another play is Solomon (Kevin Carroll), a young

South African playwright who is trying to peddle his play in New York.

Solomon convinces Bernie (Louis Zorich), the cautious but

compassionate

old owner of the landmark, to also give him a job as a waiter. During

the obligatory table-hopping, we learn that Ernie has secretly sold

the business and plans a move to Florida. This, without telling his

wife Zelda (Rebecca Schull), who (you guessed it) hates Florida.

Thrown into the mix are Arleen (Alix Korey) and Cindy (Judith Blazer),

two rich suburban ladies who do lunch and matinees and can be heard

finding fault with the shows they have been seeing, and Bessie James

(Lynda Gravatt), a black actress on her way to tinsel town.

Director Jerry Zaks does what he can with a group of excellent actors

who have been assigned to these one-dimensional characters with

one-liners

to deliver and nothing remotely interesting to say on any subject.

There are some easy laughs, to be sure. But you may feel that Simon

has written the jokes first and then created the characters.

One thing for sure, Simon wouldn’t want to know what Arleen and Cindy

would have to say about this serving of stale borscht. As many of

Simon’s plays have had long lives and have become staples on stages

around the world, I may be amiss to say that "45 Seconds From

Broadway" isn’t likely to go beyond the Richard Rodgers Theater

on 46th Street. But I thought Simon had reached his nadir with last

season’s "The Dinner Party." It only goes to prove: There

is always one step further you can go. Two stars. Maybe you should

have stayed home.

— Simon Saltzman

45 Seconds From Broadway, Richard Rodgers Theater, 226

West 46th Street, New York. $30 to $70. Ticketmaster, 800-755-4000

or 212-307-4100. Closes January 13.


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