Attic Chamber Theatre's 2018 Season
Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘Laughter/23rd Floor' Thrives on Ba-Da-Boomp Jokes in Menasha
How many jokes can there be about a blinding-white suit?
Or about the name for a Jewish Chinaman?
Or a hypochondriac’s digs about an Irishman’s heritage?
Or how crummy life is in Russia?
How many? I didn’t count in the play “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” but there are plenty – among many other verbal gags – for Neil Simon to impress again as he recounts one of his building blocks to fame.
Attic Chamber Theatre Inc.’s cast and director Dee Savides do a crackling good job of fleshing out flashy, bizarre characters of personalities who shaped some of early comedy/variety TV.
And, hitting close to home, the story has abundant gouges of the life and work of the most masterful Red baiters of all, Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy (D-Wis). McCarthy grew up 10 or so miles away from where the play is being staged, Lucia Baehman Theatre of the Communication Arts Center at the University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley.
The time of the play is 1953, March to December. Side note: Television started in the area March 17, 1953. Inventor Philo T. Farnsworth, pulled the switch to put WBAY on the air as the first station in the area and second in Wisconsin.
“Laughter on the 23rd Floor” is a memory play in more than one way.
Neil Simon recounts experiences being part of the writing staff for a NBC show (WBAY was CBS) for a way-out-there star. In the play, the star is Max Prince, who is given to running meetings in his boxer shorts, punching holes in walls with a fist and launching into comparisons of his mercurial personality with military greats of history. In real life, the star was Sid Caesar.
The play remembers comedy styles, too. In the entertainment scene, the era of frenetic, goofy burlesque was not long past. The writers in the play’s shows were mostly of the punch-and-run style. Nothing in the writers’ room, it seems, could pass without a ba-da-boomp joke popping up. Like this from the day of the death of Joseph Stalin. Russian-born writer: “Did you hear about Joseph Stalin?” Response: “Don’t tell me, Joe McCarthy put him on the blacklist.” Ba-da-boomp.
The play remembers the time of paranoia about Communism that included the banishment of Hollywood celebrities for alleged activities and affiliations – the notorious “blacklist.”
Amid colorful geysers of jokes and zany situations, “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” is painted with dark brushstrokes.
The play is hard to believe for all its truly remarkable oddball creative characters, though there still is a feeling that Neil Simon didn’t stretch things too far. Creativity tends to beget strange bedfellows.
Wildest of the bunch is Max Prince, played in full over-the-top glory by Stephen Savides, one of the region’s top-flight actors. Maniacal is apt.
Bolts of quirky energy zap all around – from L. Douglas Bord-Pire as fashion plate Milt, from Robert Ernst as Russian-born (excellently accented) Val, from Shannon Glenn as super-hypochondriac/egotist Ira, from Timothy J. Marsh as chain-smoking Brian, who is always one phone call away from Hollywood fame, from Kristine Glenn as soon-to-be (wisecracking) mom Carol, from Kristine Glenn as the sometimes-voice-of-reason Kenny (Kendra) and from Jehy Thompson as the somewhat dim secretary, Helen.
Aaron Geller isn’t quite as nutty as the others around his character, Lucas, who is narrator and participant and Neil Simon’s re-creation of himself 40 years after the fact. Lucas is something of a young innocent, the way Simon writes himself.
Action takes place in the writers’ room, which is stuffed with photos of stars of times past, a coffee/bakery table, writing tables and chairs with magazines (Newsweek, Life, etc.) that are actual and lend a touch of reality.
“Laughter on the 23rd Floor” doesn’t merely contain F-bombs, it thrives on them. There’s a running joke between Val and others that plays on Val’s pronunciation of the profanity. He eventually gets it right once – ba-da boomp.
This is another dependable production from Attic Chamber Theatre, Inc. No joke.
Playwright Neil Simon got his first big break in the early '50s as a staff writer on Sid Caesar's fabled television series Your Show of Shows, and this comedy takes a fictionalized look at the backstage chaos that went into producing one of the landmarks of television's golden age. Max Prince is the star of The Max Prince Show, a popular comedy-variety series that is a major hit on the East Coast, but network executive insists that it's too sophisticated for the Midwest, and urges Prince to dumb down his act. Between the tensions of producing an hour of top-quality comedy each week and being pestered about his ratings, Prince is beginning to unravel. His last line of defense against both the network and the ratings are his writing staff, which spends its days coming up with business for the show while hurling humorous invective at each other and anyone else within earshot. Keeping up a running commentary on the writing, fighting and wacky antics is Simon's alter-ego Lucas Brickman.
Our first show of the seaon was inspired by Simon's early career experience as a junior writer (along with his brother Danny) for Your Show of Shows, the play focuses on Sid Caesar-like Max Prince, the star of a weekly comedy-variety show circa 1953, and his staff, including Simon's alter-ego Lucas Brickman, who maintains a running commentary on the writing, fighting, and wacky antics which take place in the writers' room. Max has an ongoing battle with NBC executives, who fear his humor is too sophisticated for Middle America. The play is notable not only for its insider's look at the personalities and processes of television comedy writing, but also for its reflection of the political and social undercurrents of its time, in particular the rise of Joseph McCarthy, relationships between various (European) American ethnicities, and attitudes toward women.
The work is a roman à clef, with the characters in the play based on Neil Simon's co-writers on Your Show Of Shows. Lloyd Rose, in her Wahington Post review, noted several of the real-life inspirations: the "Sid Caesar-inspired Max Prince", "hypochondriac Ira (played by Ron Orbach, inspired by Mel Brooks)", "dryly witty, sane Kenny (John Slattery, inspired by Larry Gelbart and Carl Reiner)", and "fussy Russian emigre Val (Mark Linn-Baker, inspired by Mel Tolkin)....There is no character based on Woody Allen." Woody Allen is often misattributed to the Ira Stone character, as the character in the play is a hypochondriac and Allen went on to use that affectation to great effect in his own comedy career. However, in actuality Simon was poking fun at Mel Brooks.
"One of [Simon's] funniest...Comedy, comedy all the way." – Newsweek
Old style comedy: fast and furious." - The Wall Street Journal
"Enough laughs per minute to assure [it] a long run and many happy audiences." - USA Today
So you can either take the elevator or climb the stairs and join us for Neil Simon's Laughter on the 23rd Floor
DIRECTED BY DIANE SAVIDES
PERFORMANCES BEGIN JUNE 7TH @ 7PM AND RUN THrough JUNE 15TH
THERE WILL BE A MATINEE ON JUNE 1OTH @ 2PM WITH TALK-BACK TO FOLLOW
Please Note: True to Mr. Simon's work as a writer for comedy shows of the 1950s, this production does contain adult language and Non-PC comments.