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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Neil Simon's 45 Seconds from Broadway
is a Fun Evening of Theatre

Also see Richard's reviews of Rita Moreno and The Gamester

The Ross Valley Players, the oldest semi-professional theatre group in the Bay Area, continues its 75th anniversary season with the Northern California premiere of Neil Simon's 45 Seconds from Broadway. This comedy is the playwright's tribute to the "Polish tea room" at the Edison Hotel in New York, where you will find young, penniless actors working between gigs as waiters plus veteran second and third tier performers looking for a good inexpensive meal. I have been there many a time over the years and they serve the best chicken noodle soup in Manhattan.

45 Seconds from Broadway opened at the Richard Rodgers in October 2001, shortly after the bombing of the World Trade Center, and moderate reviews gave the production only a short run of 73 performances. Since closing, it has only been presented by several regional theatres. Even with Neil Simon returning to his roots of one liners, it has failed to gain an audience. This may be because most average audience are not interested in a comedy that has the genuine New York humor you don't find in the new witty plays of the 21st century. This is a comedy full of the typical zingers that have made Neil Simon famous. The great comic timing of all of the Ross Valley Players is worth the price of admission.

Neil Simon has devised four subplots of wonderful characters that come in and out of the coffee shop. It is sort of The Time of Your Life for Neil Simon fans. The play is centered on Mickey Fox (Artie Gilbert), a Jackie Mason type comedian who has a hit next door to the coffee shop. There are four scenes in the two-act play and each represents a season of the year. A way-out couple, Rayleen (Anne Ripley) (wearing a patchwork fur coat that look like it came from The Lion King) and her nearly mute husband Charles (Wood Lockhart), enter the restaurant as if it is a three or four star restaurant and she demand cloths on the table and elaborately brewed tea with two tea bags. She addresses Mickey as Manual and thinks he is old friend from Palmas. Rayleen drolly says that her fur coat started out as a short jacket and it just grew to a full-length coat. This couple steals the show in each of their scenes.

45 Seconds from Broadway has many other characters, such a pair of tastelessly dolled-up Jewish housewives from the suburbs (Alison Lustbader and Maureen O'Donoghue) dishing the play they just saw. One even invests in a turkey called My Father was a Grape that closes immediately after the opening. You see these ladies at every matinee in New York ("I love the play, but at intermission I heard some say this play is a piece of crap, and then I hated the play," says one of the girls). Their conversation on attending a backers preview is a highlight of the play. There is the obligatory young, naïve actress just off the bus from Ohio who ends up waiting tables at the cafe; a penniless playwright, Soloman Mantutu (Wendell H. Wilson), from South Africa looking to present his first deep drama on his culture; and an African-American actress, Bessie (Desiray McFall), who is wise in the ways of New York Theatre and is heading for Hollywood. THe cafe is run by the kindly Bernie (Bruce Vieira) and his wife Zelda (JoAnne Saltzgaber) who are holocaust survivors.

Neil Simon's comedy, with its subplots, sometimes resembles a skit you would see on a situation comedy. The scenes are played strictly for laughs, especially the funny confrontation between Mickey and Bessie on ethic jokes and the asides of Mickey when the strange upscale lady and her husband come into the restaurant in each of the play's four scenes: "with that coat she cleaned out the Bronx Zoo."

Director Robert Wilson has a strong cast of comic actors headed by Artie Gilbert (has had done scores of plays and is returning to the stage after an absence of a year) playing Mickey. His delivery of Catskills zingers is superb, and his timing is right on the mark. Anne Ripley is deliciously funny as the pompous, showy half of the strange couple who come into the café in each scene. Wood Lockhart plays her silent husband, and his facial expressions are marvelous as she goes on and on about nothing. He reminds me of Queen Aggravain's husband in Once Upon a Mattress.

Katie Kruger is perfect as the stage struck young actress from Ohio, while Wendell H. Wilson is a comic pleasure in the complex character of the South African playwright. Desiray McFall as the acid-tongued Bessie is energizing in the role. Bruce Vieira and JoAnne Saltzgaber are both good as the restaurant proprietors.

Norman A. Hall enters the second act as Mickey Fox's older brother, who lives in the shadow of the celebrated comic. He captures the character self-pity. Alison Lustbader and Maureen O'Donoghue get the biggest laughs as they dish every play they have seen. Mitchell Field as British producer Andrew Duncan is excellent with his London accent and an infectious laugh.

Director Robert Wilson has given the production a fast-paced, tight presentation; however, the scene changes could be shortened to keep the pace. The set design by Ken Rowland is typical coffee shop but does not reflect the actual café.

45 Seconds from Broadway runs through February 20 at the The Barn Theatre, Marin Art and Garden Center, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd at Lagunitas, Ross. For tickets call 415-456-9555 or visit www.rossvalleyplayers.org. Their next production is Ronald Harwood's brilliant backstage drama The Dresser.


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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