The show that takes place just seconds from The Great White Way, a comedy that encompasses Neil Simon’s style to perfection; all of that is now happening upon the Laurel Mill Playhouse stage as they present 45 Seconds From Broadway. Directed by Mark T. Allen, this humorous little adventure takes you inside culturally diverse New York City in the modern day and shows the audience how some things never change; actors still struggle to make it big, people still struggle to live their hopes and dreams. But in the city that never sleeps, anything can happen if you let it.
Striking is the appropriate word for the set, created by Set Designer James Raymond. With the warm but faded coats of apricot-peach paint covering the walls, accented with white stenciled designs, the tearoom interior has all the charm of a place that time might have forgotten in New York City. Raymond’s design is a tribute to the simplistic life on Broadway back in the day; a natural but simple setting that still feels authentic in its essence while allowing the actors to move about freely. The set is enclosed upon itself, creating the cramped effect without physically restricting the movement of the actors. Raymond does an exceptional job with coaxing an atmosphere out of something so basic.
Director Mark T. Allen has a balance of exceptional things in the production as well as things that need refining. The major problems with the production are the pacing and the exchange of dialogue from one group of characters to the next does not transition smoothly. There are often long pauses and gaps where it is unclear if the actors are struggling to remember lines or if they are attempting to create dramatic moments of silence. Either way – both feel unnatural and stifle the pace of the production.
Allen chooses to include non-speaking extras in the production as customers who casually sit at the café counter without truly serving a purpose in the show. At times their presence is even confusing as they are nearly always there— even during the scene that takes place in a dreadful snowstorm and specific lines refer to the café being empty. The other problem that surfaces with these extra non-descript characters is the background conversation they create; when meant to be having silent conversations they can be heard whispering to one another, not clearly enough to understand their conversation, but enough that it is distracting. This actually happens frequently with other characters in the scene as well, particularly the two Jewish characters at the main table near the door. If Allen’s intent was to create actual background noise, a different approach needed to be made for this to be successful, and if his intent was to have them appear to be carrying on a conversation but not actually be heard, this needs to be addressed as well.
The other major issue with this production is the attempt to use colorful accents to further augment the characters that Simon has created. While some of the actors achieve great success with executing these accents, there are others that simply cannot master it and spend more time trying to perfect the accent, which is not only distracting but ends up costing them their ability to effectively and fluently deliver their lines. This happens mostly with Andrew Duncan (Bernie Noeller), the British Character, and Zelda (Maureen Rogers), the older Polish woman. However there is great success to be had with Solomon Mantutu, Bernie, and Rayleen as far as accents go.
A briefly occurring character, but one of the most grounded and focused in the show is Bessie (Lynenette Franklin). Embodying a fully calm and composed character, she eases herself into the setting in Act II and fits naturally in the overall atmosphere of the diner. While she shares several conversations with Bernie, it’s her little exchanges with Megan (Rebecca Korn) that make her worth watching, the sage advice delivered as if she really believes in it, with just a hint of underlying sassy attitude to keep her feeling realistic.
One of the exceptionally talented performers in the production was Henri Green playing the aforementioned Solomon Mantutu. Green’s mastery of the South African accent aided in the authenticity of his character. He gave a compellingly present focus to the character in general and made his poignancy in the overall plot of the performance noteworthy. His interactions with the others often kept the scenes moving as he often picked up the slack where lines were dragging. Green’s natural ability to play humorous scenes for truth made them that much funnier when a quirky line was delivered.
A scene stealing pair that’s hard to miss from the moment they enter the stage is Rayleen (Hillary Mazer) and Charles (Doug Silverman). The pair could not be anymore dissimilar from one another; however they play off each other well, particularly as Silverman’s character is silent for most of the production. It’s Silverman’s spastic facial responses to most of what Mazer says that really get the laughs rolling from the audience. His silent reactions to her insanity are priceless. Mazer manages to create a convincing crazy character with a charming aristocratic air that borders on bonkers. Her delivery is sharp and witty while simultaneously loony. Every time she appears in that atrocious coat laughs present themselves; a well-rounded cameo character that keeps lively moments occurring on stage.
Bernie (Paul Plein) as the hard knocks New York man does have a handle on the stereotypical sound of New York. He only falters slightly when it comes to line delivery, but manages to get that gritty ‘tough life’ feeling behind his words and makes for a solid rock of a character when it comes to little laughs and tying up loose plot ends. His wife Zelda (Maureen Rogers) is the epitome of the nagging and pants-wearing woman in the family. While Rogers doesn’t quite manage the Polish accent, her withering looks when it comes to some of the things that Bernie says are quite humorous. Another pair that plays well off one another and understands the concept of stage chemistry.
The show’s main performance arch falls on the shoulders of Mickey Fox (Larry Simmons). Giving a mostly impressive rendition of this verbal-shtick comedian, Simmons practically channels Rodney Dangerfield into the way his character talks. Simmons does, however, get a little caught up in the correctness of his lines and this unfortunately costs him a lot of punch-line deliveries. With a little boost of confidence in knowing that he knows the script his performance could be flawless. Simmons relates well to every character he encounters and gives a particularly meaningful speech when bickering with this brother Harry (David McCrary— who struggles immensely with pinning down his wandering accent but is otherwise very convincing as a performer). Overall, Simmons is an excellent choice for this strongly comic character and with a few more performances under his belt I’m sure his comic delivery will shape up to be top notch.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission.
45 Seconds From Broadway plays through February 8, 2014 at The Laurel Mill Playhouse— 508 Main Street, in Laurel, MD. For reservations, call the box office at (301) 617-9906.