Neil Simon is often – unjustly, I believe – accused of being a mere jokester, a creator of le gag juste, the ka-ching king. Okay, yes, it must be admitted, Simon’s plays do brim with jokes. But the reason they are so widely performed – and indeed, as you read this, there is at least one Neil Simon play being performed somewhere, in Korean, in Urdu, in Finnish; no other playwright approaches Simon’s popularity – is his astonishing gift for creating rich and playable characters. The plots? So-so. But Simon’s plays are actors playgrounds and when actors enjoy themselves, so does the audience. We attend his plays again and again and, however we may resent it, we always have a grand time
Laughter On The 23rd Floor (at Park Square Theatre, through July 8th) is no exception. Laughter, in my humble opinion, is the best of Simon’s later exercises in nostalgia. Personally I find the family plays (Brighton Beach Memoirs, Lost In Yonkers) a touch treacly, but this play evokes the early days of television with a dry, unsentimental and refreshingly nasty flair. Not a lot happens. Writers, six men and one acerbic, holding-her-own woman, pace the writer’s room, eat bagels, drink the harsh coffee and prepare to create comedy sketches for The Max Prince Show (based on Sid Caesar’s Your Show Of Shows). They prepare, mainly, by insulting each other with strident and lusty zeal. “Where else,” one of the writers asks, “would we have so much fun?”
Max Prince – alcoholic, genuinely funny, rich but terrified to the point of catatonia, daily going mano a mano with the memo-spewing network execs – works with (and loves) his dyspeptic writing staff. Prince is an unabashed liberal, despising Joseph McCarthy and putting his fist through the wall when the Rosenbergs are executed.
In Act 2 we enjoy a run-through of a rough but still quite good Julius Caesar/Marlon Brando satire. But we also see an emerging truth: The Max Prince Show is too sharp, too literate in that time of Beaver and Lassie and Mr. Ed. Its days are numbered. The writers (inspired by Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, et al) will go one to other, better, projects. But for a magical few years in the early 50s, the 23rd floor of the Rockefeller Center was the place to be.
It’s often said that a director either solves or creates his problems when he casts a play and director Zach Curtis has put together a terrific ensemble for Laughter On The 23rd Floor. Standouts include Craig Johnson as the cravat-wearing Kenny: understated, intelligent, goofy, mesmerizing. Ari Hoptman, whom I often find too lethargic, here gives a droll but energized and very funny performance as the hypochonrial Ira Stone (I’m betting that Curtis had a lot to do with this). In the difficult role of Max Prince, Michael Paul Levin does excellent work; he’s a drunk but quite convincing as a showboating comedian. One can fully understand his writers’ slavish devotion. John Catron does nice turn as our little-dab’ll-do-ya narrator. Bob Malos plays Val with lumbering vigor; is his accent Russian? German? Who cares; it’s a winning performance. Randall J. Funk as Brian, Eric Webster as Milt, Karen Wiese-Thompson as Carol, Katherine Tieben as the goofy wanna-be writer Helen, all wonderful.
For more information about John Olive, please visit his website.