Start with quite possibly the most gorgeous set ever designed for a 99-seat theater production, add to that an intelligent, witty script which reads like a 21st Century version of Kaufman and Ferber’s The Royal Family, cast it with some of L.A.’s finest stage and screen talent—and the result is Henry Jaglom’s Just 45 Minutes From Broadway, one of the best new plays I’ve reviewed on StageSceneLA.

Like The Royal Family’s Cavendishes, the Isaacs are a multi-generational clan of successful New York stage actors whose roots in the theater go back decades and decades. This theatrical dynasty is headed by seventyish George Isaac (Jack Heller), aka Grisha, the grumpy, insomnia-plagued father of two adult daughters. When wife Vivien wonders if he’s slept well, George replies with a scowl, “Yes …  some … “ Somebody’s been eating all of his “sleeping cookies,” you see, and without them, the Ambien won’t work … and he desperately needs his second Ambien for hissecond four hours of sleep.  George is fourth-generation Yiddish Theater royalty, and is proud to have been the first Yiddish Theater actor to perform on stage in English—at the age of eleven.

Vivien Cooper (Diane Salinger) is George’s decade-or-so-younger stage star wife. Very much into New Age philosophy, Viv is the family Tarot card reader and fortune teller, a gift she credits to her 1/8 Chickasaw heritage.  Prone to drama as any diva worth her salt must be, Viv takes one look at her daughter’s fiancé’s palm and cries out “Oh my God! Oh my God! It’s just so intense!” Married for nearly four decades now, George and Vivien would seem to be carrying on in the footsteps of Lunt and Fontanne, Cronyn and Tandy, Davis and Dee.

Larry Cooper (understudy Greg Mullavey) is Vivien’s older brother, named after Sir Laurence (so you can guess which Vivien his sister was named after). Larry has reached the age when he starts the day reading the obituaries to find out who’s the latest of his generation to kick the bucket. He’s also such an actor that when George (quoting Charles de Gaulle) declares that “Old age is a shipwreck,” Larry can’t help suggesting a better line reading.  “Coulda-been-a-contender” Larry has had a great life, but the fact that Lumet and Frankenheimer, after casting him in their early live TV dramas, didn’t take him with them when they made it, still rankles.  At least Larry still gets work, his latest role that of Benny Southstreet in a nearby production of Guys And Dolls.

Pandora (Tanna Fredrick), aka Panda or Pandy, is George and Vivien’s younger daughter, 30.  Back in the family nest following a painful breakup, Panda is a bundle of raw nerves.  Learning that her older sister is (in Mom’s words) marrying “a man she says she feels truly fertile with,” younger sis runs out of the room in sobs.  Panda does seem prone to tears these days.  When told a story about her late grandmother’s dog, she breaks down again at just the thought of dogs and how “pathetic” they are. When Betsy and fiancé James drive up, Panda escapes. She’s just not ready to “deal with” her sister yet.

Betsy (Julie Davis), 37, has come home to her parents’ aging Upstate New York home for a brief visit, looking terribly uptight in her severe black business suit, “civilian” fiancé (i.e. not in show business) in tow.  Betsy’s a civilian too, never having “taken to the stage.” While appearing in a show with her parents at age thirteen, she suddenly pointed out toward the audience and announced, “I’d rather be out there,” upon which her then seven-year-old sister took over her role on the spot. Like Marilyn Munster, Betsy has always been the black sheep in the family, and as much as Panda loved her childhood, Betsy hated hers.

James (David Garver) is Betsy’s “not in the biz” fiancé. About all the family knows about James is that he’s a lawyer, though not an entertainment lawyer, thank goodness.  When asked about his job, he describes it as “putting people together,” work somehow related to buying property or other financial deals. Though handsome enough to be a stage star, James appears to have no interest in matters theatrical … until he meets the Isaacs.

Completing the family unit is Texan Sally Brooks (Harriet Schock), a character actress and longtime friend of George and Vivien who moved in with the couple six months ago.  She tells them that she does know of at least one actress married to a civilian … for twenty-two years now, can you believe it?  On the other hand, though the couple still act like they’re on their honeymoon, they could well be the exception to the rule.

Having feuded with her sister for years, Betsy is none too happy when Panda arrives an hour late for the family’s first lunch with James, face, hands and legs covered with dirt, her long red hair a mess. Though Panda explains why she’s tardy (she’s saw two mating bullfrogs and had to stay and watch), Betsy is steaming.  How could her sister miss their first lunch with James for such a stupid reason?

As the late summer day progresses, Pandy and James seem to be generating sparks whenever they’re together.  James asks her to call him Jimmy, explaining that going by James was entirely Betsy’s idea. Panda shows him a fifteen-year-old video of her teenage self performing “Take Back Your Mink” from Guys And Dolls, and he is enthralled. She explains to Jimmy that she and Betsy were once the closest of siblings, but things changed the day Betsy announced that she didn’t want to be in the business. Before long, Pandy finds herself locked in a clinch with Jimmy, confessing her deepest secret, that she can never keep a man because “being real is the final deal breaker.”  That’s why her boyfriend left her, because he saw what was inside.

Will Pandy and Jimmy be able to resist the mutual attraction that keeps growing by the minute? Will Betsy get wind of what’s happening between her fiancé and her sister?  Will older sis be able to convince her parents to make a life-altering decision she thinks is for their own good? Will Larry ever get that big break he’s been waiting all his life for?  And what on earth is Sally doing living with George and Viv?

At least some of these questions will be answered over the course of Just 45 Minutes From Broadway’s engrossing (and thoroughly entertaining) two and a half hours.  Jaglom, the auteur who’s written and directed the art house hits Eating, Last Summer In The Hamptons, Festival In Cannes, and the current Irene In Time (starring Frederick), is known for the improvisational quality of his films, yet Just 45 Minutes From Broadway feels scripted in the best of ways.  Jaglom’s characters are three-dimensional, flawed, noble, and both loveable and mildly irritating the way real families are.  There are laughs aplenty, but just as many moments of dramatic conflict, the kind no family is without and especially not one in the business called show.

Each and every cast member does memorable work here under Gary Imhoff’s excellent, nuanced direction.  Frederick, with her striking looks and mane of red tresses, has great stage presence and reveals both Panda’s show biz grit and her vulnerability. Beautiful, statuesque Salinger is elegance and grace personified as Vivien, and entirely believable as a major stage star who’s done her best to balance work and motherhood, though not always successfully. The sensational Heller plays George as a great big mess of neuroses, health problems, and bottomless love for his family.  (He and Salinger have wonderful, believable chemistry together.) Mullavey is, as always, an absolute delight, in a role he seems born to play, Schock is quite marvelous as well in Lone Star State mode, and Davis simply couldn’t be better as the family oddball, a strangely adorable bundle of anger and resentment ever on the verge of exploding. Finally, Garver is a romantic lead with acting chops to match his good looks, and likely to snag a TV series lead given the right lucky break.

And then there’s that set, that amazing set, surely one of the most magnificent ever designed by multiple award winner Daavid. Taking up every inch of the wide Edgemar stage, Daavid’s set is a multilevel, multi-roomed New York country house which looks ready to move into.  From its cluttered yet inviting living room to its memorabilia-filled attic to the swing which hangs from a rafters-high tree, colored leaves strewn across the back yard, this is a meticulously detailed set that would provoke oohs and aahs at the Geffen or the Pasadena Playhouse.  Imagine how it feels to walk into a theater about one-tenth their size and be greeted by such splendor.  (This is one instance where the set is almost worth the price of admission.) Daavid is also responsible for the production’s exquisite lighting design. Mike Shears sound design integrates the 1906 title song, as well as “An Actor’s Life For Me” and Charles Trénet’s classic “La Mer.” Uncredited costumes are a perfect fit for each character.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Just 45 Minutes From Broadway, but to quote Renee Zellweger in Jerry Maguire, it had me at hello.  I loved every minute I spent with these great “show people,” and wouldn’t mind it if Jaglom were to write a sequel.  I wouldn’t mind it at all.

Edgemar Center For the Arts, Main Stage, 2437 Main Street, Santa Monica.

–Steven Stanley
November 5, 2009
Photos: Ed Krieger

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