Neil Simon tearoom steeped with characters

Typical New Yorkers spice up 45 Seconds From Broadway, a lesser-known Simon play.

Published May 4, 2007

Playwright Neil Simon's comedy 45 Seconds From Broadway is different in style from his other creations, but it still has his trademark one-liners and comic characters.

Instead of one cohesive story, it's a series of little stories that take place in the small Polish Tearoom cafe that is, naturally, about a 45-second stroll from Broadway.

The show opens Thursday and continues weekends through May 27 at Stage West Community Playhouse.

"A lot of people haven't seen this show, and I thought they would enjoy it, " said Saul Leibner, who is directing it.

"What I found interesting was the characters who come in and out of the restaurant, " Leibner said. "They're typical New York people, and that kind of got me."

The action is anchored by comic Mickey Fox (Bill Schommer, Claude in Mame, Tito in Lend Me a Tenor and Murray in The Odd Couple at Richey Suncoast Theatre), whose jokes and delivery have the ring of comic legend Jackie Mason.

"When Bill asked me how I wanted him to play this role, I told him, 'Be yourself, ' " Leibner said. "I don't want any kind of imitation. (The character) is a little bit of Jackie Mason, but some Buddy Hackett as well. The character has a combination of a lot of people."

The proprietors of the tearoom are Zelda and Bernie (multi-HAMI winner Mollie Lutz and Stage West newcomer Edward O'Looney). Bernie, who has a heart of gold when it comes to struggling actors and writers, has sold the tearoom so he and his wife can move to Florida - which, it turns out, Zelda doesn't like that much. As the familiar faces come and go, Bernie begins to have doubts about what he has done.

Coming and going are aspiring South African playwright Soloman Mantutu (Glenn Claytor in his stage debut), the slightly forgetful grande dame Raylee (Sharon Farnsworth) and her near-silent, puppy-dog hubby Charles (Ken Murrin), and aspiring actor Megan Woods (Jennifer Parker, Ela in Charley's Aunt).

Bessie the Broadway star (Shawnae Hayes) breezes in and out, giving encouragement and advice to young Megan, as do British theater impresario Andrew Duncan (John J. Lewis) and the babbling theater gossips Arlene and Cindy (Cheryl Roberts, Essie in You Can't Take It With You, and Patty Villegas, Kate in Broadway Bound).

Adding a poignant note is Mickey's brother Harry (Murray Serether, Jack Jerome in Broadway Bound and Brighton Beach Memoirs), whose sizable scene adds a serious feel to the otherwise lighthearted fare.

Leibner has directed and won HAMI awards for three other Simon plays, Rumors, Brighton Beach Memoirs and Lost in Yonkers.

The play had a relatively short run on Broadway - three months from first preview to last performance - but its start just a couple of months after the attack on the Twin Towers may have had a negative impact on both critics' attitudes and ticket sales.

"I wouldn't put it at the top of the list of Neil Simon's shows, but it's a fun show with interesting characters, " Leibner said.

If you go

'45 Seconds From Broadway'

Where: Stage West Community Playhouse, 8390 Forest Oaks Blvd., Spring Hill.

When: Thursday and weekends through May 27. Shows are at 8 p.m., except Sundays at 2 p.m.

Tickets: $15, reserved seating. Box office is open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays and one hour before each show. Call (352) 683-5113.