In the program for 45 Seconds From Broadway, there are 187 words in Neil Simon's bio, 160 of them in italics. The following words are not in italics: "Neil Simon has been represented on Broadway by...1985 Tony Award...the new version of...1991 Pulitzer Prize; Tony Award...and...Off-Broadway...and ... Films include...and..." The rest are in italics because program bios use that typeface for titles, and Simon sure has plenty of those to his credit: 31 plays and 20 films as his body of work, and a lovely body it is.
Now comes play number 32, 45 Seconds From Broadway, with the slenderest of plots: Will Bernie and Zelda sell their beloved Broadway eatery? But the new comedy also has an abundance of lines that tickled the funny bones of a recent Saturday matinee audience. The play did not get great reviews, but I come to praise Simon, not to bury him. All right, so he goes for the "Do-you-have-honey," "Yes-we-have-honey," "I-don't-like-honey" cheap joke--but plenty of people laughed at it. True, each of the lines that end the first three (of four) scenes don't feel like blackout lines. Still, he's written a play in which two characters (wonderfully played by Marian Seldes and Bill Moor) get a laugh each time they reappear at the door of the restaurant before they've even said a word. This shows that Simon has already well established these characters. And later, when Seldes says, "Ask Charles," the line gets an enormous laugh, proving that Simon isn't just the king of one-liners. You didn't laugh when you just read "Ask Charles," but Simon still has the artistry to set up a situation where an offhand quip like that delivers a big punch.
There is some pain in seeing Moor go virtually speechless the entire night, at least for those of us who know what a brilliant Harold he was in the Boston production of The Boys in the Band in 1969. There's more sadness in the fact that Alix Korey doesn't have the opportunity to tear down the house as she did with "An Old-Fashioned Love Story" in Off-Broadway's The Wild Party; nor does Judith Blazer get to knock 'em dead as she did in as the lead in Me and My Girl. But even though none of these three performers is the show's centerpiece, Simon has given each of them good material--and if any of them failed to be mentioned favorably in any review, I sure didn't see it. (Make sure you keep an eye on what Blazer does with her foot on the word "abstruse." It's a very clever way of punctuating the sentence in which it appears.)
What Simon also shows us is that he can write for Jackie Mason, though here the legendary comic is called Mickey Fox. Lewis J. Stadlen is wonderful in capturing not only Mason' speech patterns and accent but also his body language: that arm bent at the elbow and resting parallel in front of his stomach, that strut of a walk. I've been a fan of Stadlen since I wrote my first professional review of a Broadway production in 1970: "I can't say that Minnie's Boys is good, but I can certainly say that Minnie's Boys are good." The fact that Stadlen didn't get a Tony nomination for playing Groucho Marx in that show stunned a lot of people who not only assumed he was going to be nominated, but would also win. His castmates even took an ad in Variety to let the Tony nominators know how much they protested the omission. Maybe next June, 32 years later, that double slight can be rectified. Anyway, I still think of Stadlen as a young actor, so it was eerie when Mickey Fox joked that he's "30, 31"--and I heard the audience roar with laughter. Seems like only yesterday when Stadlen was that young and younger, originating the role of the nephew in Simon's The Sunshine Boys.
If Stadlen now seems like an old-timer, what about Simon, who was contributing to a Broadway revue a decade and a half before Stadlen made his debut? The esteemed playwright has certainly seen the business change, and that's much of what he wants to discuss in 45 Seconds From Broadway. How "words went out years ago" and "They don't write music like that anymore." The rudeness of audiences who feel free to eat in the theater. The new-fangled advertising schemes. That shows often have 21 producers, many of whom are German, Scandinavian, and Dutch and for whom English is a second language. Simon also uses the word "vagina" in a context that he couldn't have imagined when he started writing professionally nearly (yes) six decades ago.
Over the centuries, much has been made of the scene in The Tempest where Prospero buries his wand; some feel that Shakespeare used the gesture as a metaphor for his laying down his quill, never to write another play. Here, when Bernie talked of selling the restaurant, I assumed Simon was employing a similar metaphor. When one of the characters said "I can't believe we're going to lose this restaurant," I wondered if we were now officially going to lose Simon. He doesn't have to write anymore, certainly not for financial reasons. He apparently writes because he wants to or needs to; there are two very telling lines in 45 Seconds about "missing the applause of real people" and that "You've always got to be in the developing stage."
Or maybe Neil Simon just wants to keep entertaining us. And he may yet again dazzle us. Would you have believed, after Rumors, that his next play would win a Tony and a Pulitzer? But that's exactly what Lost in Yonkers did. Maybe there's another great one in him. Who knows? In the meantime, we have a show that's going to bring a great deal of pleasure to a great many audiences.
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org]