“…A big blast of warm, nostalgic air!”
There’s something about New York City in the 1950s. It was a horrible time in crucial ways — sexism, racism, the Communist witch hunts. But on the surface, it was lovely. Americans wore suits to office jobs, took three-hour lunches and seemed to smoke and drink blithely with little thought of the consequences. So much postwar confidence! That being said, Newport Theatre Arts Center’s newest production of Neil Simon's "Laughter on the 23rd Floor" has a lot going for it from the start.
The "roman à clef" play, which originally opened on Broadway in 1993 at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, and was turned into a live-television movie in 2001, had its inspiration from Mr. Simon’s early television career, working as one of the writers for Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca’s variety-comedy series, "Your Show of Shows." That’s right. The golden age of television wasn’t all about those earnest dramas on “Playhouse 90.” Long before “Saturday Night Live” took to the airwaves, Sid Caesar was pioneering the art of sketch comedy, starring in his own variety hour, and averaging #4 ranking in the top ten shows in America.
Some of the regular featured performers on “Your Show of Shows” were The Hamilton Trio and the soprano, Marguerite Piazza. The great Tony Award winning José Ferrer also made several guest appearances on the series. Other contemporary comedians of the day with variety shows included Red Skelton, Arthur Godfrey, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, George Gobel and George Burns. They all had script writers.
According to Simon, Caesar's writers held their script sessions at various times on the eleventh and the twelfth floors of an NBC-TV office building, so Simon added those numbers together to put his fictional cast on the 23rd floor on 57th Street, New York, set in the writers’ room of the fictional “Max Prince Show,” which bears a strong resemblance to the real thing. We first meet Lucas, the new guy, the mid-20’s youngster hoping to become a permanent part of the team. Conor Burke, who plays Lucas, serves as the narrator, with the rest of his time observing the banter of his wacky teammates.
They include Val (Eric Bergstrom), a Russian émigré, Ira (Larry F. Scott), an annoying hypochondriac, Milt (Gregory Cohen), who wears berets just to stand out in a crowd, Kenny (Keith Bush), nicknamed the Genius, and Brian (Floyd Harden), whose dream is to one day sell out to Hollywood (Brian’s character was played by the Academy Award winning J.K. Simmons on Broadway).
The man the staff writes comedy for is Max Prince (Bill Peters), who may or may not be going slightly mad. Nathan Lane played the role on Broadway, but critics suggested that he looked and acted more like Jackie Gleason. Mr. Peters at NTAC bears a greater physical resemblance to the young Sid Caesar, and succeeds in making a much less portly man the unpredictable terror and object of fear that powerful bosses can be.
It’s no surprise, given his direct experience working for Caesar, that Simon easily establishes the atmosphere of creative, neurotic chaos that is the writers’ room. It’s the perfect set-up for unbridled laughs as these larger-than-life personalities jockey for position while trading rapid-fire barbs and zippy one-liners. “When Max laughs, my kids eat,” one character remarks. Or when the sober-minded Val, the show’s head writer, warns one of his cohorts against going off half-cocked, Milt doesn’t miss a beat in responding,“Well, if you’re half-cocked, you’re in enough trouble already.”
Indeed, all the names have been changed in “Laughter…” but it’s not difficult to pick out who’s who as the key players. Mel Brooks is the over-the-top, always late for work, Ira Stone, while Carl Reiner’s dry wit shines through in the acerbic Kenny. And Neil Simon’s alter ego, Lucas, is the fresh-faced kid looking to make his mark among what he calls “the finest writing staff in the history of TV.”
As anyone who’s ever seen “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” or the 1982 film “My Favorite Year” knows, this situation is almost an archetype. We know the writers will compete with each other to be the funniest and the craziest. We know their fear of the boss will be matched only by their admiration. And we also know that the boss’s external threats will be exceeded by his internal demons.
Those demons might have something to do with Max’s decline in ratings, actually, which corresponds to the rise of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and NBC’s meddling in his top-rated show. But Mr. Simon doesn’t try to turn the subject into comedy here. The closest thing to a joke about Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, who led the witch hunts, is Milt’s description of him as “a United States senator who giggles like Porky the Pig.”
The lone woman on the staff is Carol (Briana Donze), who spends most of Act II very pregnant. Carol, inspired by Lucille Kallen, part of the real-life “Your Show of Shows” writing team, is tough and irreverent like the guys, but she doesn’t consider the blacklist a fit subject for humor. After all, any joke could be taken the wrong way. And, any one of them could be accused of Communist sympathies and declared unemployable.
Elsewhere the play has its share of witty, eccentric comebacks. Asked whether his homeland, Russia, has television yet (remember, this is early 1953), Val says: “Television? They don’t have doorbells yet.” Next thing you know we hear Kenny commenting on another man’s useless pets: “Those dogs don’t hunt. They point to food in supermarkets.”
Director Brian Page, also a stage actor himself, has a keen eye for thematic comedy and mockumentaries, and effectively channels Simon’s particular approach. Audiences may recall his clear-eyed staging of “Death by Design,” or “Moonlight and Magnolia’s” at Newport Theatre Arts Center recently. Best of all, Director Page, who also serves as Sound Designer, has assembled a terrific ensemble, including a nice mix of new and familiar faces. Mr. Peters is especially strong as quirky madman Max, delivering ample character-driven hijinx and a pretty mean impression of Marlon Brando in a send-up of “Julius Caesar.”
Mr. Scott also is absolutely hilarious as Ira, making the most of the role’s manic humor and sight gags. And Mr. Cohen also impresses as the sharp-dressed philanderer Milt, milking every juicy zinger. His scene in the white suit was priceless.
Max Prince’s secretary, Helen (Elizabeth Lance), is impressive and credible as the deferential subordinate to the showman, and also takes on another side of the character when she decides comedy writing is her destiny.
Andrew Otero’s open set, adorned with vintage props and lit by Jackson Halphide, supports the action throughout. The costumes, suits, dresses, hair styles and accessories were designed by Claudia Berglund, and the show is stage managed by Kaelyn Coleman. Produced by Rae Cohen, Public Relations is managed by Stan Cohen and Publicity is administered by Michelle Bendetti.
Undeniably, “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” is laughable, even gut-busting on some of the jokes. It may not rise to the A-list level of Mr. Simon’s works in “The Odd Couple,” “The Sunshine Boys,” “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” “Barefoot in the Park,” “Promises, Promises,” or his Pulitzer Prize winner, “Lost in Yonkers.” But it has a strong undercurrent of sentimentality, of youthful-paradise lost, which characterizes so many of his plays.
One thing’s for certain…there’s a big blast of warm, nostalgic air in Simon’s script, a show that is ultimately a tender salute to a man that is often forgotten for his genius in American comedy. This generation may have never even heard the name before. But, as one who often viewed his shows at a very early age, I can attest to being huddled in a semi-circle around our RCA 15-inch mahogany cabinet TV on a Sunday night, eagerly awaiting that “Stars Over Broadway” theme song. I still recall a few of the superbly written sketches that poked fun at human foibles or pretensions.
Caesar would depict a befuddled “everyman trying to cope with life,” or a blustering Germanic professor being interviewed at an airport perhaps, trying to conceal his abysmal stupidity. And, along with Imogene Coca, they would make us laugh at the common man: a passion-ridden torch singer, a daffy ballerina, or a sweet, wistful tramp. Then they would take us through the hilarious marital tribulations of Doris and Charlie Hickenlooper, one of my favorites.
As Kenny says reflectively, “Maybe we’ll never have this much fun again in our entire lives.”
“Laughter on the 23rd Floor” is currently in play at Newport Theatre Arts Center, “The Cliff Drive Playhouse,” and will be presented through June 23rd. Stage times are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm and Saturday and Sunday Matinees at 2:00 pm. Tickets may be purchased at: http://www.ntaconline.com/tickets
This show is Highly Recommended!
The Show Report