The simplest way to regard Neil Simon's endearingly funny "45 Seconds From Broadway" is as a work of archeology. On the simplest level, it's a tribute to the Polish Tea Room, the nickname the theater community has given to the thoroughly unpretentious coffee shop of the Hotel Edison on W. 47th St. Long ago, when Hollywood powerbrokers commanded tables at the Russian Tea Room, theater personalities patronized the Edison, partly because it was so convenient. It would be inaccurate to describe the play as a true portrait of the restaurant, except for its affectionate depiction of the owners, a Jewish husband and wife who survived the camps and have created an oasis of borscht and blintzes in the Theater District. (They are touchingly played by Louis Zorich and Rebecca Shull.) The more crucial archeological aspect of Simon's play is its excavation of the sources of his humor. The characters are not really a cross-section of those who patronize the Edison. Rather, they are a set of running gags who reflect the range of Simon's comic sensibility. The central character is Mickey Fox, a hilarious sendup of Jackie Mason, the personification of Borscht Belt humor. As Fox, brilliantly played by Lewis J. Stadlen, declares, "A comic never leaves life alone. He pushes it, he nudges it to squeeze a laugh out of it."
Over the years, Simon has avoided Catskills cliché humor, but Yiddish inflections have underscored practically everything he has written. Certainly, he has understood the comic's desperation to find jokes in even the most painful moments. Fox has a confrontation with his hapless brother (played by David Margulies with a consummate understanding of Jewish aggressive self-humiliation) that is a veritable lexicon of how the body can mock one's most serious intentions and pretensions. Another of Simon's running gags is a pair of suburban yentas desperate to be "insiders."
Their unconsciously inane style is a kind of yin to Fox's all-too-knowing yang, as essential to Jewish humor as sour cream is to its cuisine. Their addled, adenoidal prating is performed deliciously by musical-comedy veterans Judy Blazer and Alix Korey. The most extravagant of Simon's creations is a delusional woman and her seemingly mute, long-suffering husband, both of whom evoke the grand theater of yesteryear. Divine is the only way to describe Marian Seldes in this role. Bill Moor, who plays the husband, provides a breathtaking counterpoint to her with his deeply grim expressions. Kevin Carroll has a marvelous sweetness as a South African playwright. Lynda Gravatt, Dennis Creaghan and Julie Lund handle less well fleshed-out roles capably. Given that there is no real plot, only the running gags, director Jerry Zaks has brought the play to life extremely well. John Lee Beatty's set re-creates the place itself perfectly. William Ivey Long's costumes, particularly a delirious coat for Seldes, are, as usual, perfect. This may not really be a play, but its understanding of the styles of Jewish humor is rich enough to make it an extremely funny evening.
There have been plenty of perfectly good plays about nothing in particular. Unhappily Neil Simon's "45 Seconds From Broadway," which opened at the Richard Rodgers Theatre last night, is not one of them.
It is, to put it kindly, a genre piece placed in that venerable café at the Hotel Edison, known to some of its showbiz habitues as the Polish Tea Room.
The designer John Lee Beatty has provided a tastefully accurate but somewhat glamorized version of the café - rather in the way that New York always looks brighter and cleaner in movies than in life.
This handsome setting strikes an instant note of realism, especially when through the plate-glass windows of the cafe we see a real yellow cab pull up outside in a rainstorm.
That yellow cab may have the best part of the show.
Neil Simon seems at his best when his plays are firmly rooted in his own experience.
Now, "45 Seconds From Broadway" is based on no one's experience. It has no focus. The wisecracks crack in the empty air. Characters are caricatures gasping for the breath of life.
The play does have loosely connected threads running through it, but none is particularly interesting and few are especially credible.
The hero, or at least the principal character, is a Jewish comedian called Mickey Fox (Lewis J. Stadlen), so closely based on Jackie Mason that the role seems situated somewhere between homage and identity theft.
Mickey, who has his own one-man show on Broadway, is being wooed to appear in London by an easily amused British producer (Dennis Creaghan). That's Thread No. 1.
Thread No. 2 is about the lovable old owner of the joint, Bernie (Louis Zorich), who wishes to sell the place and go to Florida, because his lovable old wife, Zelda (Rebecca Schull), who hates Florida, has been working too hard.
Thread No. 3 concerns an aspiring young out-of-town actress who becomes a waitress (Julie Lund), and a young black South African playwright (Kevin Carroll) who becomes a waiter.
In among the threads are thrown the cameos - two matinee ladies (Alix Korey and Judith Blazer) who discuss theater, a grande dame swathed in eccentric furs (Marian Seldes at her grandest damest) plus a mute attendant husband (Bill Moor) and finally a black actress (Lynda Gravatt) who wanders through the play understandably on her way to Hollywood.
The only time the play registers those home truths that represent Simon at his considerable best are the scenes Mickey has with his elder brother, Harry (David Margulies), which suggest authentic sibling feelings.
There are a few jokes along the way - by my rough count, at least four were very funny - but jokes make a joke book, not a play. And, anyway, Jackie Mason himself does that kind of thing better.
So here we are left, apart from all the initial throat-clearing and set-up, with a box of theatrical tricks that don't work very well in the first place, and which we are not engaged by in the second.
The director, the admirable Jerry Zaks, has done his best to make the play pay off, but he resembles one of those ladies at the fruit machines, pulling levers with glacial jollity, winning one or two lucky plunges, but coming out behind at the end.
The performances were excellent - they usually are on Broadway.
Stadlen, who once in "Minnie's Boys" gave a lively impersonation of Groucho Marx, here does the same for Jackie Mason, neatly catching the clenched shoulders and the clotted diction.
As for Seldes, she is magnificently crazy as an imperious nutcase full of foibles and pretense, while Moor makes an admirably impassive foil as her slowly turning worm of a husband.
And as for Zorich and Schull - what is there not to like?
Probably the best performance comes from Margulies as the dogged underdog brother suggesting a whole family history with a single shrug.
Of course, he did have the only well-conceived role in the entire play. This does give him a certain advantage.
They're such thoughtful folks, the old couple who run the coffee shop in the sentimental new comedy ''45 Seconds From Broadway,'' that you would have expected them to put one of those signs in their window. You know, the kind that help visitors from foreign places orient themselves when they're feeling lost in big cities. The sign, in this instance, would declare the following useful information: ''Neil Simon spoken here.''
Neil Simon is indeed the lingua franca for the diverse souls who wander into the happy little eating spot that is the setting for the sketch of a show that opened last night at the Richard Rodgers Theater. Even if you don't speak Neil Simon, you'll recognize its sound: that unmistakable rhythm of quips and counter-quips, of the friendly patter of jokes that so openly predict their punch lines that you're tempted to finish them yourself.
Mr. Simon has plied this language to create a remarkable variety of effects in a long, lucrative career spanning some 30 plays. Sometimes it has been used as ammunition for battling friends (''The Odd Couple,'' ''The Sunshine Boys''). On other occasions it is plied by family members to avoid direct confrontation (the autobiographical ''Brighton Beach'' trilogy). And it is often employed to camouflage and then unveil seriously wounded hearts (''The Gingerbread Lady,'' ''Chapter Two'').
In ''45 Seconds From Broadway,'' however, Mr. Simon is caustic only to be kind. The play may have the rat-a-tat pace of a Marx Brothers movie, but it exists not to create Groucho-like anarchy but to weave fractured lives into healing harmony.
Every tough wisecrack in this sincere but paper-thin valentine to New York has a heart as soft as melting butter. And a town that is usually portrayed as tense and aggressive -- and more recently as noble, tense and aggressive -- starts to look like the capital of Niceland.
You may have already heard that ''45 Seconds,'' which is directed by Jerry Zaks, is inspired by a restaurant that is roughly 45 seconds from the Richard Rodgers Theater: that's the Cafe Edison, also known as the Polish Tea Room, and a favorite hangout for Broadway theater folk, which has been run for close to 30 years by Frances and Harry Edelstein.
John Lee Beatty's meticulously detailed set for the play goes to some lengths to recreate the cafe's atmosphere. And the play includes two characters based on the Edelsteins, here named Bernie (Louis Zorich) and Zelda (Rebecca Schull).
But as perceived through the idealizing vision of Mr. Simon, squinting across the country at Manhattan from his home in California, the coffee shop is transformed into a hazy, feel-good equivalent to the bar in William Saroyan's ''Time of Your Life.'' It's an abstract place where cuddly eccentrics gather to share philosophies and discuss their problems.
The essential difference from ''Time'' is that when disillusionment rears its sour head in ''Seconds,'' it is promptly decapitated. Scratch the surface of a curmudgeon, and there's an angel beneath.
It's as if the play had been written by the dewy, life-affirming young bride of Mr. Simon's early Broadway hit, ''Barefoot in the Park,'' for whom all Manhattan was an enchanted playground.
It says much about the evening that though Jackie Mason, the standard-bearer for equal opportunity offensiveness in stand-up comedy, is clearly the model for the play's central character, he has been laundered, pressed and starched into squeaky-clean decency. Renamed Mickey Fox, he is played by Lewis Stadlen with a twinkle and a seraphic smile that take the sting out of zingers.
The closest Mickey comes to provocative racial humor is when he greets Bessie James (Lynda Gravatt), a black actress, asking, ''Where's Porgy?'' He quickly amends: ''My whole act is racist. If you want to stamp it out, you first bring it out in the open.'' Not surprisingly, Mickey is also a benign dispenser of life-changing advice to fledgling playwrights and performers.
Even more than Bernie and Zelda, who shuffle on and off while gruffly performing acts of generosity to struggling actors and playwrights, Mickey is the solar center of ''45 Seconds,'' and his cascade of one-liners infects the way everybody talks. Enter the Polish Tea Room, and you are immediately Mickey's straight man, or he winds up being yours.
Bessie to Mickey: ''Read the good book.'' Mickey: ''I'm waiting for the paperback.'' Andrew Duncan (Dennis Creaghan), an English theater producer, to Mickey: ''You absolutely kill me.'' Mickey: ''Well, maybe later. We'll see how it goes.''
The play is mostly a series of such two-handed exchanges, with the others onstage either freezing into poses of silent conversation or acting as an appreciative audience. The beneficiaries of Mickey's wit and wisdom cover a range of familiar archetypes.
There are Megan Woods (Julie Lund, in a thankless part), the wide-eyed aspiring actress fresh off the bus from Ohio (yes, Ohio, as in ''Wonderful Town''), and Solomon Mantutu (Kevin Carroll), a South African playwright of great pride and little money. (Both Megan and Solomon of course wind up working for the altruistic Bernie.)
Then there's Rayleen (inevitably played by Marian Seldes, with the requisite flourishes), the grand and flamboyant madwoman whose patchwork fur coat is the object of the evening's funniest jokes. Rayleen is accompanied by an ostensibly mute gentleman named Charles W. Browning III (Bill Moor), whose rigid air of eternal affront strikes the evening's most poignant notes.
Also on hand are two classic kibitzers (incisively and amusingly played by Alix Korey and Judith Blazer), matinee ladies from the suburbs in faux Chanel who voice familiar objections about the state of Broadway today.
And making a late entrance is Harry Fox (the excellent David Margulies), Mickey's older brother who arrives hunched beneath a burden of resentment and affection.
The attendant sibling conflict introduces a few flashes of emotional sobriety to the evening. So, less successfully, do the revelations about the mysterious relationship between Rayleen and Charles and an improbable subplot concerning Bernie's impulsive selling of the coffee shop. Mr. Simon takes radical short cuts to tie these elements together in a resolution that rights all wrongs.
Plot, however, is secondary in a play that is basically an affectionate if threadbare exercise in a show-biz language descended directly from vaudeville. Mr. Zaks's staging is accordingly more about comic cadence than character. The performers are generally creditable, although Mr. Moor comes off best, possibly because he says the least.
At one point Arleen, the matinee addict, reviews the 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.''
There may be more than two people in ''45 Seconds,'' but the overall effect is pretty much the same. Whether you want to sit in on the conversation depends on how devoted you are to Mr. Simon's particular style of thrust-and-parry dialogue. Because frankly, that's about all the show has to offer.
Imagine borscht without beets, matzo ball soup without the matzo ball, and you've got a clear picture of the watery broth that is Neil Simon's new comedy. The play is a warm-spirited tribute to the coffee shop in the Edison Hotel that's a refreshingly unglamorous hangout for legit insiders big and small. It's also a theatrical valentine to the restaurant's proprietors, husband-and-wife Polish emigres still dispensing blintzes and coffee even as their fictional counterparts are dishing out shtick onstage a block away.
But good intentions don't count for much in showbiz, and well-meant though it is, this sadly underdeveloped and flimsy play unfolds like a few episodes of a not-so-good '70s sitcom stitched together. It seems broadly intended as a comic elegy for a vanishing era on Broadway (a legit variation on Simon's far funnier "Laughter on the 23rd Floor"), but it doesn't make much of a case for what's being lost.
Simon's loyal audience, it must be reported, doesn't seem to care. They laugh so affectionately at the strained one-liners and often limp broadsides at the state of Broadway that watching the play is like being at a TV taping where everyone else is dutifully obeying "Laughter!" signs you can't see.
John Lee Beatty's impressively realistic set, which replicates many of the details of the actual "Polish Tea Room," as the coffee shop is known in legit parlance, crisply sets the sitcommy tone. At three generic tables surrounded by standard-issue hotel chairs, an array of strenuously colorful characters assemble over the course of four scenes taking place across four seasons.
Center stage whenever he's around is Mickey Fox (Lewis J. Stadlen), the hit comic headlining next door who is so blatantly based on Broadway kvetchmeister Jackie Mason that Mason may want to sue for royalties. (Kidding, Mr. Mason -- I'm kidding!) Stadlen does a fine Mason, but after a while -- and true to the original -- his endless helpings of shtick are enough to give you a touch of indigestion.
While Mickey keeps a visiting London producer in stitches and extols the glories of the coffee shop and its food over British variants ("I don't want a trifle, I want a substantial…"), the cafe's owner, Bernie (Louis Zorich), dispenses free coffee cake and gruff warmth to a penniless South African playwright, who soon dons an apron and starts taking orders.
Meanwhile (or rather, next: The play's awkward structure requires one set of characters to fall self-consciously silent while another takes over dialogue duties), fresh off the plane from the hinterlands is beaming wannabe actress Megan Woods (Julie Lund). Megan's mom told her how nice Bernie and his wife, Zelda (Rebecca Schull), were to her back when she was a beaming wannabe actress, so here she is.
Also popping in regularly are a pair of gauchely dolled-up Jewish housewives from the suburbs, dishing their latest matinee over coffee, and a worldly-wise black actress named Bessie James. (Simon really should steer clear of black characters: Bessie's name cues a flagrantly cheap joke, as does that of the patronizingly depicted young playwright, one Solomon Mantutu.)
The most peculiar visitors are an elderly couple: a virtually silent man (Bill Moor) and a flamboyantly eccentric woman played by -- who else? -- Marian Seldes, looking in her mad, fluorescent makeup and fur-collared coat like a refugee not from 46th Street but an Expressionist painting. Rayleen, as she is called, imagines the coffee shop is a swanky establishment and treats her husband like a mute dimwit, which indeed he appears to be -- until, in a strange and sour second-act miracle, he wakes up and proceeds to humiliate Rayleen in front of the rest of the coffee shop's understandably bewildered patrons.
Bewildering, indeed, are Simon's jerrybuilt dramaturgy, which yokes his various subplots together preposterously at the finale, and his slipshod characterizations. Even the playwright's stock in trade -- zingy one-liners -- are pretty thin on the ground, with some of the better ones coming from the delectably funny Alix Korey and Judith Blazer as those bridge-and-tunnel visitors.
Director Jerry Zaks elicits some subtle work from Schull and Zorich, as well as David Margulies as Mickey's self-pitying brother Harry, while Seldes soldiers on less subtly, working hard to earn solid laughs for material that is not particularly funny.
But the play is not much of a showcase even for its able cast. Early on, Mickey celebrates Bernie and Zelda's restaurant as "the last bastion of what used to be the greatness of the Broadway theater!" He ain't kiddin': The sad irony is that there's probably better theater unfolding hourly in the Cafe Edison itself, where it can be had for the price of a bagel and a cup of coffee -- quite a bit less than what the producers are charging at the Richard Rodgers.