The Heights Players’ first production of
the season, "45 Seconds from Broadway," directed by
Susan Montez, is one of Neil Simon’s most recent plays, having
been presented at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in 2001.
And while the comedy - written by Simon when he was well into his 70s - is not among his best work, Montez manages to mine the last ounces of humor out of the otherwise lukewarm play. Which just goes to show, you can always light a fire with the right spark.
Having passed from radio and television gag writer (most memorably for Sid Caesar’s "Show of Shows") to theatrical comedy ("Come Blow Your Horn," "Barefoot in the Park") to musicals ("Little Me" with Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh and "Sweet Charity" with Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields) to plays with more serious overtones ("The Sunshine Boys," "Lost in Yonkers"), Simon seems to now have an understandable yen for looking back on his career.
The forty-five seconds of the play’s title refers to the distance between the Great White Way and a certain nameless coffee shop where numerous theatrical characters hang out. The shop is owned by the lovable and long-suffering Bernie (Jack Honor) and his equally lovable and long-suffering wife, Zelda (Cathy Lemmon). They serve nice Jewish food like blintzes and borscht, and employ down-and-out theater hopefuls like Soloman Mantutu (Jerel Armstrong), a penniless South African playwright, and Megan Woods (Julia Morrissey), a young actress who has come to New York City to become a Broadway star.
But the central figure in "45 Seconds" is comedian Mickey Fox. Simon provides Fox with explosive volleys of jokes and Ed Healy portrays the comic as if he has been waiting all his life for this role.
When a haughty and mysterious woman named Rayleen (Laurie Muir, who played the spiritualist Madame Arcati in last season’s "Blithe Spirit") walks into the coffee shop wearing an extravagantly ridiculous fur coat, Fox comments, "With one coat she wiped out the whole Bronx Zoo."
Reflecting on his career, Fox says, "Although 50 percent of my audience is Jewish, the other half sits next to them so they can tell them what it’s about."
One can hear the echoes of a whole fleet of Jewish comedians from vaudeville to the Borscht Belt in Fox’s one-liners.
Other coffee shop frequenters include Bessie (Alexandra Bosquet), a wise and saucy African-American traveling entertainer, and two friends who seem to have arrived straight from Long Island - Arleen (Eileen Delgado) and Cindy (Jan VanderPutten), whose commentary on the plays they have just seen could raise a smile from the dead. One can easily imagine Simon chuckling ruefully as he wrote the dialogue for these two amateur theater critics.
Although the play has no central plot, there are several intertwined subplots. Will Fox travel to London to do a show for producer Andrew Duncan (Michael Janove), and will he help his brother Harry (Joe Cooper) by giving his nephew a break in the business? Will Bernie really sell the coffee shop and break Zelda’s heart, and will they move to Florida, a state she can’t stand? Will Charles (Bill Wood), Rayleen’s semi-comatose husband, finally break his silence, and if he does, what will he say?
Montez assembled a talented mix of newcomers and veterans for this production. Honor has performed on Broadway and off-Broadway in the Obie Award-winning "Moonchildren," and Bosquet’s credits include the film "The Unknown Soldier," screened at the Santa Barbara Film Festival. Meanwhile, Heights Players veterans with a demonstrated ability in comedic roles include Cooper (last seen in "The Odd Couple"), Janove ("The Sisters Rosensweig") and Healy, who has appeared in so many Neil Simon comedies he may become an honorary Jew.
The Heights Players production of "45
Seconds from Broadway" runs through Sept. 26, Friday and
Saturday at 8 pm, and Sunday at 2 pm. Tickets are $12, $10 seniors
and students. The Heights Players are located at 26 Willow Place
at State Street in Brooklyn Heights. For reservations, call (718)
237-2752 or visit www.height