There's no assembly more live-wire, unpredictable and funny than a room full of comedy writers. In Laughter on the 23rd Floorby Neil Simon, director Andy Berkovsky and a wild, accomplished cast mint anew the eccentrics of the early days of television.
Word has gotten around about this show, which opened in November, took a long weekend's break for Thanksgiving, and will now be on the boards until just before Christmas. I planned to slip in on a Thursday night, usually a quieter time for theatre venues. The parking lot was full, and so was the theatre. They might have benefited from holiday spirits, but word of mouth and favorable reviews probably had a lot to do with it.
This is Simon's tribute to the wild clan that wrote Sid Caesar's Show of Shows, the variety and sketch show that had a huge following in the early days of television. Caesar hired Simon and his brother Danny on the strength of comedy sketches they staged at Camp Tamiment, an adult summer camp in the Poconos. In the play the young writer Lucas Brickman, played by the affably sincere Keith Yawn, serves as narrator, chorus and stand-in for Simon.
Simon presents the eight writers as magnificent New York eccentrics, mostly Jewish and mostly with recent ties to Europe -- principally to Russia and Poland. The show program provides each actor's vivid and amusing one-paragraph imaginary biography of his character. Wikipedia matches Simon's characters to the real-life writers Larry Gelbart, Mel Tolkin, playwright Michael Stewart, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Selma Diamond and Woody Allen and Dave Caesar, Sid's brother.
How would you like to be locked up in a conference room with those madmen? "Madmen" is a generic term, including Carol Wyman (played by Dawn Erin). As Wyman asserts, in this group she is a writer, not a woman, and her years in this company of neurotics, pranksters and needy children in adult bodies has given her an outlook and a turn of foul language that is anything but feminine.
R. Michael Clinkscales is Max Prince, head performer and producer of the show. Prince is paranoid, depressive, brilliant and devoted to show and crew. With the gleam in his eye and his surges of wild action, Clinkscales is compelling in a performance as a performer just half a step away from the abyss. One can easily credit the hushed awe of Prince's staff when they say that he is by nature the funniest man they have ever known.
Berkovsky uses some fine actors for these parts, people with superb timing and self-control who can make the most of a one-liner, a pratfall, or a conflict, however absurd. Doug Lebelle with his rubber face and impressive range is a favorite -- a man devoted to jokes because his life his eating him alive. Craig Kanne's Russian accent and impatient demeanor are fun, especially when Lebelle's character rags him for his inability to pronounce correctly the most common of English four-letter expletives.
As an ensemble piece, Laughter on the 23rd Floor with its colliding egos and depiction of creativity under stress evokes City's 2008 drama Glengarry Glen Ross,a nominee for the B. Iden Payne for best drama. Wisecracks and repartee establish these vivid characters, who live in perpetual contest with unseen network executives. NBC broadcasts Prince's 90-minute show, a live nationwide weekly performance of an art form stemming directly from the vaudeville stage, but the network is pulling back. In the first act Prince and the writers face a threatened reduction of airtime to 60 minutes. Toward the end of the second, Prince announces as a triumph the fact that he and the network have parted ways.
It's a vigorous, entertaining, vulgar, unpredictable evening, one that will blow away any stereotype you may have of Simon as a warm and fuzzy middle-of-the-road comedy writer. This has the authenticity of experience, with all the jagged edges that implies. It runs through December 20. Catch it if you can.
And enjoy that Benny Goodman big band soundtrack before the show and at the interval.