Neil Simon's New Play Waxes Sentimental

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  Dec. 3, 2001 at 11:40 AM
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NEW YORK, Dec. 3 (UPI) -- Neil Simon's 32nd play pays an affectionate tribute to one of Broadway's favorite noshing spots, the coffee shop in the Hotel Edison that anyone in the audience can visit before or after the show just to check it out.

Simon has titled his sentimental comedy "45 Seconds From Broadway," to pinpoint the location of the Café Edison on 47th Street and make allusion to George M. Cohan's "Forty-five Minutes From Broadway." It is playing at the Richard Rodgers Theater, just a block away from the café on 46th Street.

This may make the show sound pretty parochial, but "45 Seconds From Broadway" is a play for all audiences and all seasons, rich in characterizations that are larger than life even when they are based on living people. It revolves around Bernie and Zelda, the big- hearted proprietors of the coffee shop.

They are based on Frances and Harry Edelstein, Polish émigrés who actually have been running Café Edison for nearly 30 years and were guests of honor at the play's opening night party. It is a tribute to them that showbiz insiders never call the Café Edison by its name, referring to it only as "The Polish Tea Room" in a play on the name of the fancier Russian Tea Room.

Bernie and Zelda's hospitality and generosity has made the place a showbiz hangout for such veteran entertainers as Mickey Fox, a role based on compulsive comic Jackie Mason, as well as new arrivals like a penniless actress from Ohio named Megan Woods and a playwright from South Africa, Solomon Mantutu. Solomon is a stand-in for American black playwright August Wilson, who uses the Café Edison as his headquarters when visiting New York, as does Simon who now lives in California.

Add to the mix Fox's businessman brother, whose son needs help breaking into the stand-up comic business, a British theater producer who wants Fox for a show impossibly far from London's West End, two suburban housewives who are regular Wednesday matinee-goers, a sassy black actress, and an elderly couple, possibly socialites down on their luck who drop into the café occasionally as though they were slumming.

There is no actual plot, just a subplot about Bernie selling the coffee shop, but a lot of conversation. To quote Arlene, one of the matinee regulars commenting on a play she has 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." That's pretty much applies to "45 Seconds From Broadway," but the difference is that Neil Simon is writing the lines.

There are the zingy one-liners, the specialty of Mickey Fox, and intriguing situation comedy, best exemplified by the mysterious comings and goings of the eccentric elderly couple, known only as Rayleen and Charles W. Browning III. Almost everyone in the cast plays straight man to Fox, who loudly doses out quips and wisdom in nearly equal amounts to anyone within his range.

Lewis J. Standlin, who cut his acting teeth on Simon's "The Sunshine Boys," "The Female Odd Couple," and "Laughter on the 23rd Floor," is marvelous as Mason-Fox, a role somewhat sanitized by the playwright. He has a grand time playing a man with a heart of gold disguised as a hard, flip egoist. Only an occasional wink and kindly advice tendered to Broadway novices who come his way betray his true nature of softy.

Louis Zorich is perfect as Bernie, a bear of a man with even a softer nature than Fox, and Rebecca Schull is endearing as the Jewish earth mother, Zelda, who resists her husband's move toward retirement because she wants to keep ministering to the need of the Café Edison's clientele for borscht and blintzes.

Marian Seldes turns in one of her most amusingly eccentric characterizations as Rayleen, who wears her shabby patchwork fur coat as regally as though it were sable. This grand performance, on top of her show-stopping act in Edward Albee's "The Play About the Baby" earlier this season, should win her an award or two.

Kevin Carroll is particularly winning as Solomon, who swallows his pride and takes a job as a waiter at Café Edison to make ends meet, as does Julie Lund who plays Megan with appropriate innocent appeal.

Alix Korey and Judith Blazer make the most of their cartoon roles as matinee buffs, and David Margulies is convincing as Mickey Fox's earnest brother, Harry. Lynda Gravatt takes the role of Bessie James, a black actress with attitude, and runs with it. Only Bill Moor has a thankless, almost speechless role as Charles W. Browning III, but he gets the last laugh in the play by reason of an unexpected twist.

Jerry Zaks' direction is as smooth as silk, and set designer John Lee Beatty has replicated the faded elegance of Café Edison down to minor detail, all lovingly lit by lighting designer Paul Gallo. William Ivey Long's costumes express character perfectly, especially the Rayleen's lace tea dresses and that unbelievable coat!

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