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Polish Joke

Neil Simon's valentine to a famed Broadway hangout is greeting-card thin; Alan Alda is triumphant in the deft, heartfelt QED.

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West Side schmaltz: Marian Seldes, Bill Moor, and Louis Zorich (from left) lay in on, in 45 Seconds From Broadway.  

Wonderful as it is to be prolific, it is not strictly necessary: Chekhov became a great playwright with only four major plays; ditto Wilde -- five, if you count Salome. Will Neil Simon emerge their superior for the plethora of plays he keeps churning out? There are plays written for no more compelling reasons in the eyes of posterity than to make money, shore up a shaky reputation, or because their authors don't know how to do anything else.

Whatever reason prompted Simon to write his latest, it was a bad one: 45 Seconds From Broadway is considerably farther than that from being a play. The inspiration -- if that is the word -- came to Simon as he peered through the windows of the Hotel Edison's famous coffee shop, a.k.a. the Polish Tea Room, where he has often found sustenance and small talk. It is a humble but honest place, with food more hearty than fancy, and prices appealing to mere mortals and theatrical luminaries alike. The warm couple who run the joint reserves a section for celebrity habitués, although these are nowadays outnumbered by the varieties of soup.

Can you base a play on a repertoire of soups? The Belgian-born French playwright Félicien Marceau did write La Bonne Soupe, but notwithstanding the delusory Paris of Simon's previous effort, The Dinner Party, he is not French. His new work concerns a diverse bunch of people foregathered in an unnamed but unmistakable coffee shop in four scenes labeled respectively "summer, fall, winter, spring." We get the coffee shop's owner, Bernie (lovable but crusty), and his wife, Zelda (crusty but lovable); Megan Woods (a young would-be actress from Ohio working as a waitress); Solomon Mantutu (a young would-be dramatist from South Africa working as a waiter); a couple of garrulous theatergoers (dogged Arleen and dopey Cindy); the comedian Mickey Fox (modeled on Jackie Mason, though more a Mason jar, wide-mouthed but brittle); Andrew Duncan (his English producer, played by an actor unable to sound British); an odd couple (no, not that odd couple), the always mute Charles W. Browning III and his blithely bossy wife, Rayleen; Bessie James (a sharp-tongued black comedienne and a bit of a cliché); and Harry, Mickey's obscure, repressed brother (a Pennsylvania shopkeeper).

These characters are merely compendiums of jokes grafted onto cardboard figures. In neither themselves nor in their interactions do they constitute anything like a real play. There are laughs in 45 Seconds, but they are laughs in an emotional vacuum.

The acting, however, is accomplished. The irrepressible Lewis J. Stadlen, working with much less raunchy or pointed material than his character's inspiration, nevertheless conjures up a Masonite comic. Louis Zorich, Rebecca Schull, Kevin Carroll, Julie Lund, Judith Blazer, Alix Korey, Lynda Gravátt, and the endearing David Margulies do as well as possible. But Simon cheats. He unconscionably reverses the emasculated Charles (the dependable Bill Moor) and the mean Rayleen (the inimitable Marian Seldes) into their unbelievable opposites by way of an eleventh-hour feel-good flourish. Thus ends this sprawling and shapeless nonplay, revealing Simon as the trickster he all too often is. Jerry Zaks helps with sedulous staging, but that is about as curative as feeding soup to nuts.

Peter Parnell based his "QED" on the life of the Nobel Prize?winning physicist Richard Feynman, co-discoverer of quantum electrodynamics. From the writings of Feynman and his friend Ralph Leighton, Parnell ingeniously conceives an evening in 1986 during which Feynman, in his office at Caltech, reminisces about his love of physics and of nature, and watching his first wife die from tuberculosis while he worked at Los Alamos. He talks on the phone to his second wife, debates his doctors about a risky operation on his growing tumor, argues with the chairman of the board of nasa, and beats his beloved drums. He goes off to play a chieftain in a school production of South Pacific and returns to his office, in costume, to talk to an importunate but delightful female student with whom he chats, dances, flirts, and drums.

"QED" is a seductive mix of science, human affections, moral courage, and comic eccentricity. It reflects on, among other things, death, the absence of God, travel to an unexplored country, the pleasures of drumming, and the need to know and understand. Alan Alda, under Gordon Davidson's apt guidance and spiritedly supported by the vivacious Kellie Overbey, gives an indelible performance full of charm, a relaxed intensity, and expert drumming. An evening not to be missed.

On the other hand, I have seldom been impressed by the adroit but smart-ass contrivances of the glibly superficial Richard Greenberg, now at his most synthetic and pretentious in Everett Beekin. Part One, "The Shabbos Goy," takes place on the Lower East Side in the late forties. It is standard, Jewish-accented kitchen-sink comedy, centered on two clashing sisters, Anna and Sophie. Though mildly amusing, it is as old as the Bergs (Jewish for the Hills). Part Two, "The Pacific," picks up with two of Anna's daughters, Celia from Long Island and the younger Nell, in Orange County, California, where Nell lives with Bee (Everett Beekin VII), whose son, Ev, is about to wed Nell's daughter Laurel.

The threads straining to connect these disparate halves are as tenuous as they are complicated. In a wedding interruptus, Laurel, a spacy California chick, runs out on near-cretinous Ev, who is either Everett Beekin VIII or III (don't ask!), descended from the fellow who was the partner in a pharmaceutical gold mine of an another Beekin and the Shabbos goy affianced in Part One to a third sickly sister of Anna and Sophie, who . . . oh, the hell with it.

The leap in time and space undermines what little character development and dramatic impact there might be in this play. The screwy Californians are as stereotypical as the succulent Jews, and the resolution, with the two sisters joining an unconvincing act of Orthodox piety toward the dead, is as credible as a rainbow in a snowstorm.

Evan Yionoulis's competent direction coaxes assiduous acting from all, but Bebe Neuwirth (as Anna and Nell) and Robin Bartlett (as Sophie and Celia) must carry the show. Neuwirth is her usual sassy self, fun to watch. Bartlett, however, triumphs in a pair of comic performances deeply felt, subtly shaded, and infectiously communicated. Yet should one recommend a play for its intermission? At Everett Beekin's, a battery of stagehands changes Christopher Barreca's imposing sets with a swiftness, proficiency, and elegance the play, alas, cannot begin to match.

45 Seconds From Broadway
By Neil Simon, staged by Jerry Zaks
QED
By Peter Parnell, staged by Gordon Davidson, starring Alan Alda
Everett Beekin
By Richard Greenberg, staged by Evan Yionoulis, starring Bebe Neuwirth and Robin Bartlett


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