The stage is a fine place for existential heroes. Often, of course, when writers position a lone protagonist within a proscenium to discuss his life, the intention is to insinuate, insist even, that existence is daunting. At first glance, playwright Peter Parnell would seem to agree with this Beckettian “I can’t go on,I-must-go-on” attitude, and his QED could be taken for the latest entry in the Annals of Dramaturgical Despair. Parnell’s focal figure, Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman, delivers a diatribe against hope after learning his cancer has reactivated.
Nevertheless, QED is a play in which Feynman as existential man equals Feynman as jolly, accomplished man—a book-thumping, bongo-beating illustration of humankind as noble in reason and infinite in faculties. During the 1986 Saturday when Parnell sets Feynman (Alan Alda) at play, the irrepressible fellow hustles around his Cal Tech office explaining the following: quantum mechanics, the obscure Asian country Tuva, the unpredictable nature of photons, the unfathomable nucleus, the metabolism of cancerous tumors, the unfounded prejudices against scientists, and his contention that the Challenger explosion was caused by a frozen gasket. There’s even a passage in which Feynman, who was present for the first atom bomb detonation, expounds on being near “ground zero”—a passage that rings eerily pertinent to a contemporary audience.
In successfully making his point about how exhilarating human potential is, Parnell conflates the facts of Feynman’s rich history and imagines a new element: a bright but pushy student called Miriam Field, who twice interrupts Feynman’s compulsive Act I monologue. In Act II, after Feynman returns from playing a tribal chief in a local production of South Pacific, Field (Kellie Overbey) re-enters to pump Feynman about her future as a scientist. But she’s also there as a temptation for Feynman, who’s boasted of loving every woman he lays eyes on. When Field encourages him to dance in his gaudy South Pacific headdress, the result is his hopeful decision about some iffy cancer surgery he’d been thinking of avoiding. The device, however, seems contrived to give the otherwise random proceedings something resembling dramatic build.
Though Parnell and director Gordon Davidson don’t solve this problem as easily as Feynman solved so many of his, it’s the only one calling for further theorizing. They’ve otherwise crafted an articulate divertissement in which Alda, as the Queens-inflected Feynman, bounces with great flare from chair to blackboard to tape-recorded Tuvan music to, yes, hope. Overbey makes her drop-ins lively as well.
Stand-up comics are also existential figures, all the more so since many of them are walking depressed zones offstage. Mickey Fox, the gag man dominating Neil Simon’s 45 Seconds From Broadway, is hardly alone, though. He’s surrounded by the regulars at a fictional version of the Cafe Edison, the 47th Street coffee shop that Simon and hundreds of other Main Stem denizens love calling the Polish Tea Room.
Simon’s intentions are clear: He’s sending a billet-doux to the commercial theater by ribbing a few of the types populating it. But he comes nowhere near realizing this goal with his tepid characters, who air their pickled opinions while scarfing overstuffed sandwiches. The coffee-shop klatch includes Fox, longtime proprietors Bernie and Zelda, a wannabe South African playwright who probably has talent, an aspiring actress who probably doesn’t, a confident working actress, and two matinee ladies. In two acts over supposedly four seasons, nothing of theatrical import happens to any of them. There’s also a delusional elderly couple who only take up space. She’s irritatingly talkative and grandiose (Marian Seldes with all affectations flying); he’s silent, until he isn’t.
In the second act—just after Bernie confides he’s sold the business without consulting Zelda—Mickey’s brother Harry enters to ask a favor. It briefly looks as if friction between the tense sibs will ignite the bland proceedings, but it doesn’t really. (Is Simon obliquely reflecting on his relationship with brother Danny?) At the curtain of this Jerry Zaks-directed production, all comes predictably right, even if Alix Korey and Judith Blazer, wonderful singers playing the nasal matinee-goers, haven’t been asked to warble a note.
Still, there are two happy reasons to see 45 Seconds From Broadway: (1) the jokes Simon has written for Fox, and (2) Lewis J. Stadlen, who delivers them. The actor, brilliant last year as Banjo (read Harpo Marx) in the revival of The Man Who Came to Dinner, is brilliant this year as Fox (read Jackie Mason), another man who came to dinner. Stadlen has Mason’s vocal patterns down—the choppy, accented delivery—as well as the physical mannerisms and the ability to undercut his sarcasm with an ingratiating smile. (Is Mason receiving a royalty check?) OK, there’s a third attraction in set designer John Lee Beatty’s de-cluttered Cafe Edison.
Some might call 45 Seconds From Broadway a pleasing slice of lemon meringue pie. Aside from Stadlen spouting those one-liners, though, the sentimental comedy is only artificial sweetener.