September 20, 2010

'45 Seconds to Broadway'

Soup to nuts

by Mark Langton
IJ Correspondent

It’s not that Neil Simon’s 2001 comedy, “45 Seconds from Broadway, ” is a bad play. In order for it to be a bad play, it would have to be an actual play.

It is a tribute to the sheer number of laurels America’s most prolific playwright must have rested on that he was able to pass this sketch of a show off on Broadway as anything other than a collection of one-liners. Delivered by an unlikely gathering of unrelated individuals. Who happen to have the same taste in soup.

However, if it’s an evening of laughs you want, by all means, go see the Ross Valley Players’ current production of Simon’s 32nd Broadway offering, which opened its Bay Area premiere on Jan. 14 at the Barn Theatre in Ross. Fans of the Simon formula will not be disappointed -- providing they know going in not to expect very much in the way of story line or character development or anything else that might constitute a real play.

The hook Simon employs to hoist this petard is its setting, inspired by a well-known coffee shop at the Hotel Edison, located between Broadway and 8th Ave., roughly 45 seconds from the Richard Rodgers Theatre (Simon claimed in a recent interview to have stepped it off himself). A favorite hangout for Broadway theater folk, the Café Edison, affectionately known by habitués as “the Polish Tea Room" -- famous for its home-made soup -- has been run for nearly 30 years by Harry and Frances Destin, who are obviously represented here by two characters in charge of the menu
named Bernie (Bruce Vieira) and Zelda (JoAnne Saltzgaber).

Here, the couple frame the action as bookends rather than centerpieces, gruffly serving up acts of generosity to struggling actors and playwrights along with their menu of ethnic comfort food.

Vieira appears to take his comic roles quite seriously, and his hard work shows (during the last couple of seasons alone he has shape-shifted between roles as disparate as MacMurphy in “Cuckoo’s Nest,” Daddy Warbucks in “Annie,” a gangster uncle in “Lost in Yonkers,” and now this utterly convincing Yiddish-speaking restaurateur.) Equally effective is Saltzgaber’s Zelda, although at times her dialect sounds like it veers from Swedish to Yiddish to Irish to Portuguese. It matters little – what becomes more important is that we believe their relationship. Hey, we kid, because we love.

Comedian Jackie Mason is clearly the template for the play’s real central character, a caustic stand-up comedian re-named Mickey Fox. It is telling that the real Mason – never one to miss an opportunity to offend somebody -- has been de-fanged and pre-fabbed in Simon’s idealized version into a hyperkinetic but inoffensive "Stepford comic," ably played by Marin Classic Theatre’s artistic director Artie Gilbert.

Mickey’s relentless one-liners are so dominant they infect the speech of everyone present, including audience members, as with yours truly on the drive home. (“I’ll be glad to show you my driver’s license, officer," I said when pulled over for a broken tail light later that evening. "Now can you show me where I can get a good piece of liver?”).

Bessie: “Read the Good Book.” Mickey: “I’m waiting for the paperback.” Producer Duncan to Mickey: “You absolutely kill me.” Mickey: “Well, maybe later. We’ll see how it goes.” The “story” is mostly a series of these kinds of formulaic exchanges, delivered much like an old episode of “Laugh-In” -- without the window shutters. As each character pops in, the other actors who remain must assume a pose of barely audible hubbub (“apples and pears, apples and pears”), or an even more self-conscious pose of listening with great intent -- usually to Mickey, as he dispenses his knee-jerk wit and wisdom to anyone who will listen.Even when he is not speaking, Gilbert's character seems to always be somewhere nearby, restlessly eager to dive back into the fray; hovering, almost, like the unrepentant ghost of Joey Bishop.

The New York-born Gilbert was an obvious choice for Mickey, possessing all the natural ethnic chops to pull off the shoot-from-the-lip Mason patois. Like Mason, Gilbert is not a naturally fluid presence -- after an hour of this kind of relentless rat-a-tat-tat, even the real Mason can start sounding like a dial tone with an irritable bowel. Again, playwright Simon could have remedied this by giving the Mickey character a little dimension.

Moving in and out of the café is a parade of familiar archetypes: We meet Andrew Duncan, a British impresario trying to make a deal for Mickey to do a show in London (played by Mitchell Field, an actor who possesses the rare gift of active listening); dewy-eyed, "would-be actress" Megan Woods, played by Katie Krueger, making her own semi-professional debut in a thankless role. Krueger has a voice that in higher registers can sound like Minnie Mouse on helium, giving the evening one of its funniest moments, when Megan asks Mickey to help her pick a song for for an audition, and Mickey replies, “I’d stay away from ‘Old Man River’ if I was you.”

Enter a would-be playwright from South Africa, Soloman Mantutu (played by a likeable Wendel H. Wilson, fresh from beyond the “Fringe” Festival of Inexplicable One-Acts). Enter also Arleen and Cindy (Alison Lustbader and Maureen O’Donoghue), a couple of housewives from the suburbs who fancy themselves matinee mavens, all dolled up and ready to dish, stealing scenes along the way. There is the world-wise Bessie James, a black comedienne with a quick, sharp tongue (played by Desiray McFall, who does a great job with an awkward role, written almost as a racist cliché). Most peculiar of all are Charles W. Browning III (Wood LockHart), an ostensibly mute gentlemen whose face speaks volumes, accompanied by his flamboyant and delusional companion Rayleen (played by Anne Ripley).

Making a late entrance in the second act is Harry Fox (veteran Novato actor Norman Hall), Mickey’s repressed older brother. The sibling conflict gives this tale its first inkling of a real relationship, but, alas, even that fails to deliver. It is interesting to note that the immensely gifted Hall usually nails a meaty comic role by artfully throwing it away. Here, even he looks like he's working too hard to give this dog a bone. Hey, not even Yitzhak Perlman can coax “The Flight of the Bumblebee” out of a ukulele.

Nor can Bob Wilson’s able direction cure this threadbare play’s many ills. I don't care what Mom might have said about chicken soup being Jewish penicillin, you can’t really cure everything from a cold to an anxiety attack simply by serving soup to nuts. More is required. As matinee maven Arleen says of a play she’s just seen, “It wasn’t a play. It was two people talking. He said something, she said something, and at the end, nobody said anything.”

The only difference here is that Simon takes a larger cast to do the same thing.

Again, die-hard fans who love what is familiar about Neil Simon will be comfortable here. Still, to paraphrase Mickey when giving his producer Duncan the business about what he finds wanting in English cuisine: Hey, if it’s me, given a choice? If you don't mind, I’d probably pass on the trifle and order a substantial.