45 Seconds From Broadway by Neil Simon. Directed by Jerry Zaks. Scenic design by John Lee Beatty. Costume design by William Ivey Long. Lighting design by Paul Gallo. Sound design by Peter J. Fitzgerald. Starring Lewis J. Stadlen, Louis Zorich, Rebecca Schull, David Margulies, Lynda Gravatt, Kevin Carroll, Dennis Creaghan, Julie Lund, Bill Moor and Judith Blazer, Alix Korey. Also starring Marian Seldes.
While sitting in the Richard Rodgers Theatre, waiting for the performance of Neil Simon's new play 45 Seconds From Broadway to begin, I found it impossible to not overhear the couple sitting next to me. "Why don't they put the storyline in the program?" the man said to his wife. "I wish they would," she replied.
As it turned out, they had nothing to worry about. It would be almost impossible for anyone to get confused by the plot of 45 Seconds From Broadway, because . . . well, it doesn't have one.
Instead, Simon has written four "slice of life" pieces about a restaurant run by a Polish couple attached to a major theatre district hotel (it's never named, but is unquestionably modeled on the Cafe Edison). Each of the play's four scenes occurs in a consecutive season over the course of a year, and because of this, there is seldom any direct connection between what happens in one scene and what happens in the next. Characters may appear in multiple scenes and ideas or simple story elements may pop up now and again, but there is no single unifying storyline.
But that was most likely the intention, as, in any restaurant, the customers (and perhaps the employees) come and go. They do here, as well, and are all overseen by Bernie and Zelda, played with affectionate warmth by Louis Zorich and Rebecca Schull. Among the folks that populate the restaurant's tables: In-your-face comic Mickey Fox and his brother Harry (Lewis J. Stadlen and David Margulies), Broadway star Bessie James (Lynda Gravatt), aspiring African playwright Solomon Mantutu (Kevin Carroll), the British producer Andrew Duncan (Dennis Creaghan), and aspiring actress Megan Woods (Julie Lund).
Stadlen is the centerpiece of the play and the restaurant, and gets a lot of mileage out of his comic quips. But, his Jackie Mason similarities aside, Mickey Fox is always "on," which doesn't always make him compelling to watch, and his standup routines grow old quickly. There are few levels to Mickey, which makes him seem frequently less than real. Margulies is only in one scene, but is far more touching and rounded. Gravatt does well in her interactions with Mickey, but her more ego-laden moments lack the star quality her character needs to be believable. Carroll and Creaghan do decently with their smaller roles, and Lund is very likable as Megan.
Two of the show's funniest performances are given by Judith Blazer and Alix Korey as two gossipy, babbling theatergoers. They shout into cellular phones, they invest in shows without reading them, they quote theatre reviews verbatim, and pontificate endlessly about shows they didn't understand. Both actresses perfectly portray two of the most annoying women you can imagine, who you would never want to be seated next to at a restaurant.
But it is Marian Seldes and Bill Moor, as the bizarre patrons Rayleen and Charles that walk away with the show's biggest laughs and warmest moments. Moor is superb in his ability to make only a few words - or no words at all - go a very long way. Seldes, in contrast, speaks every one of her lines with gleeful, daffy relish. Her wardrobe (William Ivey Long's best costume work in the show), including her jaw-droppingly gaudy fur coat, is outrageous, but Seldes makes it work splendidly for Rayleen. Whether asking for linen tablecloths, the most complicated tea brewing imaginable, or items you'd never expect to find on the menu, Seldes makes her compellingly lovable and impossible to resist. Seldes is the essence of dramatic and comedic perfection.
Jerry Zaks has generally directed the show with the simple and straightforward manner the material would seem to warrant, but seldom takes the script to any exciting new places. He never lets down the material, punctuating the laughs as easily as the all too few moments of warmth, but never really provides the extra oomph that the show needs to take off.
But it's likely that neither Zaks nor any other director could have given this show what it needs. This play, like last season's The Dinner Party is refreshing in that it shows Neil Simon willing to stretch himself, but it isn't quite enough; in the end, 45 Seconds From Broadway has little to hold onto. Its collection of human characters are believably conceived and executed, but Simon never successfully demonstrates how they create the show's most important character, the restaurant itself. Some cohesion is generally necessary to sustain a show with no real story; as it stands, it seems there are too many different plays going on, and Simon was either unwilling or unable to give any of them the attention they really needed.
Still, whatever else may be said about 45 Seconds From Broadway, Neil Simon has seen to it that it is funny a significant portion of the time. And, as many of his other plays would demonstrate, that's frequently enough. Here though, the laughs - like Korey, Blazer, Moor, and Seldes - are best served a la carte. The full menu is greatly lacking, but a visit to this establishment is worth it for the few sumptuous treats to be found.