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Lewis J. Stadlen and Julie Lund in 45 Seconds From Broadway
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
In at least two respects, the coffee shop located in the lobby of the Edison Hotel really is one of the last bastions of a vanishing New York City. As Neil Simon points out in his new comedy 45 Seconds From Broadway, set entirely within the confines of the Café Edison, this is one of very few eateries that are still thought of as prime destinations for producers, actors, playwrights, etc. who want to grab a nosh while talking about whatever they're up to. Also, though the restaurant has employees of all types, some members of its waitstaff are relics of that golden age when a patron's question "Waiter, what is this fly doing in my soup?" would be answered by the wry rejoinder, "The backstroke." (I can personally testify to the fact that this Borscht Belt tradition survives at the Café Edison: When I pondered aloud whether I really had room in my stomach for dessert after a recent dinner there, my waiter's deadpan response was: "You'll force yourself.")

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.

Marian Seldes, Bill Moor, and Louis Zorich
in 45 Seconds From Broadway
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
It should be stressed that, though the number of guffaws in 45 Seconds is considerably lower than in Simon's best work, the author's batting average is still higher than many other comedic playwrights. What pleasures may be found here are in the delivery of some worthy one-liners and routines by a bunch of solid pros. Lewis J. Stadlen is so good as Mickey Fox that he virtually carries the play on his shoulders. Dennis Creaghan is the perfect straight man for his antics as Andrew Duncan, the Brit producer. Though Simon throws Marian Seldes a huge curve in the last scene, she is delightful as the nutty, pretentious Rayleen; her delivery of a sentence in pidgin Chinese here is almost as hilarious as her mock sign language in last season's The Play About the Baby, and she plays well off of her straight man, the priceless Bill Moor. As the voluble matinee ladies Arleen and Cindy, Alix Korey and Judith Blazer score even when their lines aren't especially funny--and, when their lines are funny, they nail some of the biggest laughs to be heard on Broadway outside of Noises Off and The Tale of the Allergist's Wife.

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.

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