New comedies find laughs in the world of theater

Broadway welcomes imports, a new Neil Simon

The key to an evening's entertainment at the theater this season is a reversal of Shakespeare's line, "All the world's a stage."

For the creators of three comedies that opened on Broadway earlier this month - "By Jeeves," a revival of "Noises Off," and Neil Simon's new play, "45 Seconds From Broadway" - the stage is indeed the world.

By Jeeves is a musical based on a British literary import, the stories of P.G. Wodehouse. The author's tales brought to life the upper-class, dumb-cluck Bertie Wooster, and his manservant, Jeeves, who watches over his master like St. George - the patron saint of England - all rolled together with Mary Poppins. But, in the hands of playwright and director Alan Ayckbourn, who wrote the book and lyrics and staged the work, and Andrew Lloyd Webber, composer of the score and musical arrangements, "By Jeeves" comes across as strangely low key - but not without its charms.

No doubt, Webber was determined to prove that he could write a nearly bare-stage musical that didn't depend on falling chandeliers, two-legged warbling felines, or humans on roller skates pretending they were trains.

Ayckbourn admits to freely inventing the plot, but basing it on the tone of the Wodehouse humor. In "By Jeeves," Bertie has become an actor, putting on a one-man show in the local church hall to raise money on behalf of the steeple fund. Being Wodehouse's Bertie, he's as vain as he is simple, and delighted to have the spotlight to himself as solo singer, banjo player, and arranger of the songs. Before the curtain goes up, some of his friends - Honoria Glossop, Bingo Little, Gussie Fink-Nottle, and the others - pass out programs to the patrons filing into their seats, as if they were back in a never-never vision of the English countryside sometime between the world wars.

The complications pile up when Bertie's banjo is lost in transit. Under the watchful gaze of Jeeves, the only stage manager in theater history with a stiff upper lip, Bertie is left to entertain the audience by improvising a complicated story about a weekend of misplaced identities, cross purposes, and clandestine romances.

The action is alternately silly and sweet, not to mention landing a poke or two at amateur theatricals the world over. There's no other word but impeccable for the cast, particularly John Scherer as Bertie, who proves himself expert in wrinkling his brow in amazement, followed by a "Eureka, I've got it!" expression.

British actor Martin Jarvis endows with a twinkle in his eye. Webber has written a score filled with quotes from his earlier works and those of other composers, but there are some bright numbers, particularly "By Jeeves" and the inspired visual gag of the finale.

Michael Frayn's Noises Off, which premièred in 1983, is also set in merry old England, on a theatrical circuit that is as far from London's West End, the equivalent of Broadway, as actors can travel. The premise revolves around a tour by a second-rate troupe performing one of those beloved off-color British farces that come with lots of slamming doors and compromising situations. The rambunctious props include four plates of sardines, which come and go as if Murphy's Law - "Whatever can happen, will" - were directing the traffic.

Frayn's Tony Award-winning serious drama of several seasons back, "Copenhagen," was based on a series of conversations. "Noises Off," one of the funniest backstage comedies ever written, is less dependent on dialogue than on a variety of sight gags that no doubt date back to a performance in ancient Greece when an actor tripped over his sandal, fell on his face, and discovered that he could make the audience laugh.

Under the direction of Jeremy Sams, the cast thinks nothing of risking life and appendages by falling down stairs, crashing through windows of broken glass, and crossing a second-story balcony by clinging to the fake ivy. The play proceeds though three acts of accelerating breakdowns, from a final dress rehearsal, to an evening mid-way in the run, to the closing performance, when nothing is left of theatrical decorum.

Along the way, the audience learns as much about the off-stage animosities and rivalries of the actors as those of the characters they are supposed to be playing. Patti Lupone, as the aging ex-star portraying a slovenly housekeeper, is hilarious as she mugs and slouches her way through the dual role; Peter Gallagher is perfect as the über-dictator of a director who treats the actors as his personal puppets. A cupcake of a confection, Katie Finneran, in the role of the trophy girlfriend and ingenue, is a comic discovery, mixing her off-stage relationship with Gallagher into the on-stage shenanigans without missing a double take or double-entendre.

Neil Simon has reverted to the early days

of his career, when he was a gag writer for Sid Caesar, to deliver 45 Seconds From Broadway, two hours and 10 minutes of one-liners that keep the audience howling. However, what's missing is the theatrical glue of character development, believable relationships, and a plot line.

The play takes place on set designer John Lee Beatty's nostalgic, sepia-drenched re-creation of the coffee shop at the Edison Hotel (which, in real life, is across the street from the Richard Rodgers Theatre, where "45 Seconds From Broadway" is playing). Known fondly as the Polish Tearoom, the restaurant is a hangout where actors, wanna-be stars just off the bus from Ohio, producers, and would-be dealmakers meet for tea-and-sympathy from the proprietors - and certainly an order of cheese blintzes on the side.

The leading man and restaurant regular is stage comic Mickey Fox, Simon's affectionate tribute to Jackie Mason. As portrayed by Lewis J. Stadlen, who has cloned his role model's rat-a-tat deadpan delivery and gestures, Fox becomes a master of ceremonies, conducting interviews with the other customers in the shop.

These include the requisite young girl who wants to make it as a actress; the struggling playwright, this time a proud black man from South Africa; and a pair of Long Island matron matinee-goers, who serve as a mini-Greek chorus.

The change-of-pace couple, the Brownings, are as bizarre in conception as in performance. The distinguished actress Marian Seldes, as Mrs. Browning III, and Bill Moor as her husband, deserve an award for courage in taking them on.

No doubt there are people like Simon's inventions striding the streets off Times Square - we've seen them on stage dozens of times before - but his take on their lives feels like a first draft of strung-together scenes, or an evening's worth of characters from Caesar's "The Show of Shows."

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