Three months ago playwright Tony Kushner and director George C. Wolfe, two Tony-winning masters associated with the acclaimed epic drama “Angels in America” and the musical gem “Caroline, or Change,” met for lunch at the Café Edison, a quaint Midtown Manhattan restaurant located inside the Hotel Edison. As Kushner and Wolfe’s intriguing powwow progressed, I couldn’t help but wonder if they were discussing separate projects or perhaps a new collaboration. But the notion of seeing or overhearing influential artists during a casual, pre-show lunch typifies the cozy, touristy, cross-generational appeal of the Café Edison, a former ballroom commonly known within the New York theater community as the Polish Tea Room. And as the attractive setting for Neil Simon’s funny but flawed 2001 comedy “45 Seconds From Broadway,” the restaurant, particularly its Theatre District ambiance and hospitality, has been favorably brought to life in the Dayton Theatre Guild’s entertaining, often hilarious local premiere.
Directed by Fred Blumenthal and transpiring in four seasonal scenes, “Broadway” could be easily regarded as much ado about nothing. People enter the Polish Tea Room. People leave the Polish Tea Room. Looking for a substantive plot? Not here. In fact, Simon doesn’t provide much closure or significant backstories for most of the characters, predominately consisting of one-dimensional stock characters seemingly inspired by industry folks he must have known over the years. All in all, this mindless, mildly offensive play is second or third-rate Simon. Even so, it remains a Neil Simon creation at its core. You are guaranteed hearty laughs at the mention of a grape. You are guaranteed to be in the company of a few delightful oddballs. You are guaranteed a good time.
The effortlessly jovial Saul Caplan, one of the best Simon interpreters in the Miami Valley, has a ball (without becoming crude or off-putting) as the talkative, wise-cracking Mickey Fox, a legendary comedian in the abrasive vein of Jackie Mason or Don Rickles. Mickey has been approached by a humble British producer (a genially understated K.L. Storer, also providing terrific sound design) to do a London engagement, but is ultimately taken aback by the arrival of his brother Harry (Steve Kantor, nicely paired with Caplan). Sibling disharmony has always been an enticing signature within Simon’s repertoire, particularly “Broadway Bound,” but here it shrivels with overlong tedium. Thankfully, there’s more to enjoy elsewhere in the play as ruminations on love, culture and showbiz are addressed from an assortment of colorful supporting characters.
Debra A. Kent and Debra Strauss are respectively wonderful as gossipy theater enthusiasts Arleen and Cindy, a tight-knit, opinionated duo so infectious I wish Simon would have structured the play around them. Kent’s description of Arleen’s attendance at a backer’s audition from hell is an absolute highlight. Patty Bell and John Spitler, another dynamic duo, are also winning as eccentric couple Rayleen and Charles. Bell, sophisticatedly aloof, will surely give you the giggles in Act 1 when she gingerly dictates Rayleen’s persnickety tea preferences. Spitler, primarily mute and remarkably restrained throughout, exudes hysterical stillness. Dave Nickel and Terry Larson hit the mark as humble married proprietors Bernie and Zelda. Marcus L. Simmons II, adopting a firm dialect, is an endearing presence as burgeoning African playwright Solomon Mantutu. Mary Mykytka as ingénue Megan Woods and Gail Andrews Turner as Broadway star Bessie are amiable in vastly underwritten roles.
Blumenthal’s vision is marred by pacing concerns, particularly stemming from the inability to allow conversations to credibly overlap as in any busy restaurant, but he scores points for dressing and designing one of the finest sets produced by the Guild since relocating to Wayne Avenue. The patrons of the Café Edison would be proud.
“45 Seconds From Broadway” continues through Sept. 8 at the Dayton Theatre Guild, 430 Wayne Ave., Dayton. Performances are Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 5 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. The performance runs 2 hours and 25 minutes with one 15 minute intermission. Friends of the Guild are also featured as extras in certain scenes throughout the course of the run. Tickets are $18 for adults; $16 for seniors; $11 for students. For tickets or more information, call (937) 278-5993 or visit www.daytontheatreguild.org