(Above: The Very Little Theatre opens its 89th season with the Neil Simon comedy, “45 Seconds From Broadway;” photo by John Bauguess)
By Randi Bjornstad
The premise of “45 Seconds From Broadway” is one that anyone who ever aspired to making it big in show biz can appreciate.
It centers around a place called the Polish Tea Room, which sits at the epicenter of the theater district in New York City and beckons to the up-and-coming, the still-hopeful, the has-beens and never-weres among the singers, dancers and actors whose lives revolve around the never-ending dream of the Big Break.
The tea room is run by Bernie and Zelda, played in the Very Little Theatre production by Achilles Massahos and Dense LaCroix, a couple who welcome everyone who comes through the door, as well as extending a special helping hand in the form of food, advice and even jobs to new-on-the-scene young starving artists.
Most of the 18 actors in the cast probably know full well what Neil Simon was writing about, as most have paid their dues doing other jobs by day while pursuing their art at night and on weekends, some locally and others in wider theatrical circles.
The cast includes both VLT veterans and newcomers: Diana Aday, Don Aday, Bart Aikens, Martin Brown, Katherine Collins, Samantha Cross, Denise LaCroix, Kevin Hustle, Pamela Lehan-Siegel, Achilles Massahos, Damon Noyes, Chris Pinto, Randy Rawson, Paul Rhoden, Joshua Russell, Stephanie Sarnoff, Janna Slack and Samson Vanderpool.
Director Patrick Torelle likes the play because of Simon’s intimate knowledge of the industry and his subjects.
The playwright “has given us plenty of laughs, with a great deal of affection for his subjects,” Torelle wrote in his introduction to the play. “Don’t be surprised if you feel him tugging on your heartstrings, while simultaneously pulling your leg.”
What makes it even better is that “the characters are people like ourselves, people who do their work more for love than money,” he said.
In the pantheon of Neil Simon plays, which includes 29 plays as well as five musicals since his “Come Blow Your Horn” had its debut in 1961, “45 Seconds From Broadway” isn’t one of the best-known or highly touted.
It opened on Broadway in mid-November 2001 and closed two months later, after just 104 trips to the stage.
The show’s title indicates how long it would take to walk to Broadway — the actual street, not the mythical pinnacle of success — from the coffee shop that is the center of the plot and which is based on a real-life place. That would be the diner located inside the real-life Edison Hotel on West 47th Street in Midtown Manhattan, and yes, just a short walk east to Broadway.
It was called the Café Edison, but people really did refer to it as the Polish Tea Room because of its Eastern European menu and atmosphere. It sported lofty arches from the days when the space was part of a ballroom, pictures of the many actors who had eaten at its tables and a homestyle menu famous for its chicken soup and blintzes.
The café closed several years ago, with plans to replace it with a Friedman’s restaurant, which already had several other “comfort food” locations in Manhattan and which just now is advertising to hire wait and kitchen staff for the soon-to-open eatery in the old Café Edison space.
It remains to be seen whether Friedman’s can match the cachet of its predecessor.
Along with Torelle’s direction, VLT’s production of “45 Seconds From Broadway” features set design by Bill Campbell and costumes by Paula Tendick. One special local touch is an arrangement of head shots of actors who have appeared on the VLT stage during the past 80 years, in an homage to the celebrities who frequented the Café Edison.
The theater has 20 assisted-listening devices, available for each performance on a first-come basis.
45 Seconds From Broadway
When: 7:30 p.m. on Oct 13-14, 19-21 and 26-28; and 2 p.m. on Oct. 15 and 22; an opening night gala follows the Oct 13 performance
Where: 2350 Hilyard St., Eugene
Tickets: $19 for adults, $15 for senior citizens and students, available at the box office from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, 541-344-7751, or online at TheVLT.com