For a five-star feast of humor and wit, go see Director Michael Sheppard’s wonderfully realized Laughter on the 23rd Floor, Neil Simon’s love letter to his salad days as a TV comedy writer. (Simon had been a co-writer on Sid Caesar’s Show of Shows, which included future legends Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner.)
The actors were as razor-sharp as Neil Simon’s zingers, and their physical energy caromed from one colorful character to the other. If they were hoopsters, they’d be hot potatoing the ball into an orange blur, until one of them suddenly does a dribble drive followed by a slam dunk. Sheppard’s choreographic skills serve Laughter very well indeed, with hilarious ensemble moves as well as individual shenanigans, sometimes involving the set’s fainting couch (or maybe it’s a psychiatrist’s couch.)
Relatively-sane Lucas Brickman (Neil Simon’s alter-ego, played by Jason Grasl) is the newbie writer for larger-than-life Max Prince’s (Pat Towne) weekly comedy-variety show, set in New York City circa 1953. Lucas arrives in the middle of Max’s running battle with the suits at NBC, who fear the show’s humor is too sophisticated for the burgeoning Middle America audience. But Max and his team of comedy writers are not giving an inch. Hypochondriac Ira (Jeff Campanella,) droll Kenny (Cornelius Jones, Jr.,) resilient Carol (Lanisa Renee Frederick,) pressure cooker Brian (John Ross Bowie,) fast-and-loose Milt (Ty Mayberry,) and worrywart Russian émigré Val (Roland Rusinek) continue to egg each other on to excellence. Even Max’s assistant Helen (Jessica Joy) reveals a restless intelligence beneath the comically dutiful exterior.
The early 1950’s were deeply unsettling times of Cold War fears, of Hollywood blacklists and ruined reputations, and of conflating sophistication with subversion. Under those circumstances, to be creative was to be courageous. Although Laughter keeps the politics firmly in the background, Sheppard and his cast clearly convey that the team of writers is a “band of brothers” able and willing to charge the hill for Max and for the honor of their craft.
The spot-on set features a sailboat atop of a high cabinet, overlooking a forest of TV awards on either side of it. The WASPs still had the commanding heights of the c-suites back in the 50’s, as all around them the immigrant waves from war-torn Europe were invigorating American culture and putting their enduring stamp on the small screen.
Laughter on the 23rd Floor continues at the Gary Marshall Theatre on Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2 pm and 8 pm, and Sundays at 3 pm. Added show Sunday, April 8, at 7 pm. No Show Sunday, April 1. Tickets are $45 – $65.