Simon's notion to set his new play in this time capsule seemed inspired, and 45 Seconds From Broadway is right on target in some respects. The play's central character is a paragon of New York Jewish humor: His name is Mickey Fox, and he bears such a strong resemblance to Jackie Mason that he probably would bear that comedian's name if there were no legal issues involved. Much of 45 Seconds revolves around Mickey's discussions of potential projects with a British producer and his confrontations with his older brother, Harry, over the show business future of Harry's son (Mickey's nephew). Other stories concern the possible sale of the café and the big-city struggles of a South African playwright and a young, blonde thing from Ohio. On hand to provide local color without really contributing to the action are a pair of matinee ladies who have something to say about everything theatrical, a black actress of a certain age, and a faux-grand, dotty old woman in a horrific fur coat who keeps showing up at the café with her ancient consort in tow.
The major problem with 45 Seconds From Broadway is the lack of an overarching plot. Now, this might not sound like such a severe liability; didn't Simon's Laughter on the 23rd Floor, based on his experiences as one of a team of gag writers for Sid Caeser, manage to become a fair-sized hit even though it's really just a string of jokes? But the fact that there is no real forward motion in the action of 45 Seconds seems to have adversely affected the interior comic rhythms of the piece. Sure, there are brief periods when Simon is operating at full steam, but these are largely overwhelmed by longer stretches where the humor is forced or nonexistent. The play never truly recovers from the clunky exposition of its first couple of scenes, which include dialogue so contrived that it might have been written by a neophyte rather than a man whose string of Broadway hits began in the middle years of the last century. And the comic buttons of each scene, right before each blackout, are extremely lame.
Kevin Carroll is quite charming as Solomon Mantutu, the South African scribe, but Julie Lund can do little with the thankless role of Megan Woods, the token Midwest refugee. Lynda Gravátt (who bears a striking resemblance to Della Reese) seems wasted as Bessie James, the black Broadway vet who decides to head for L.A. As the married proprietors of the café, Louis Zorich is merely functional but Rebecca Schull is touching. And David Margulies presents a wonderfully well rounded characterization of Harry Fox.
Scenic designer John Lee Beatty's semi-literal recreation of the Café Edison is a marvel. The simulation of rain and snow on West 47th Street as seen through the restaurant's windows is even more impressive, so kudos also to the lighting of Paul Gallo and the special effects of Gregory Meeh. William Ivey Long's costumes are always appropriate, never more so than in the outré garb of Seldes' character. Director Jerry Zaks has got the pacing of the comedy right but hasn't been able to downplay the serious flaws of the text. Shortly before 45 Seconds From Broadway began previews, Joan Copeland and Carol Woods left the production and were replaced by Schull and Gravátt--but it seems clear that casting issues were always the least of this show's problems.