Play: “Laughter on the 23rd Floor”
Group: New Jewish Theatre
Venue: Wool Studio Theatre, Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive
Dates: June 9, 10, 12, 13, 16, 17, 19, 20
Tickets: From $24 to $34; contact 314-442-3283 or www.newjewishtheatre.org
Story: Lucas Brickman is a young man who is sharp, witty and personable. He also is fortunate enough to get a tryout as a writer for the “Max Prince Show,” a sophisticated, wildly successful TV comedy show. Max is a legendary figure, larger than life and with an ego to match his impressive talent. Keeping him on top of the ratings heap, and at arm’s length from network censors and nervous, straight-arrow types who fear his humor is beyond the scope of the growing audience in Middle America, are a cadre of the best and brightest comedy writers in show business.
In the course of this fateful year of 1953, with the insidious menace of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s “Red Scare” permeating the landscape, Lucas cultivates his own considerable talent in the raucous, free-for-all atmosphere of the writers’ room on the 23rd floor at NBC’s corporate New York City headquarters.
Highlights: Neil Simon was just getting his wildly successful career in full swing as a young writer for Sid Caesar’s landmark series, “Your Show of Shows,” and used that auspicious opportunity as the basis for his autobiographical, 1993 valentine to that unrivaled television masterpiece that ruled the airwaves from 1950 to 1954. Simon fills the cast with characters based on the show’s legendary staff, which included Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Lucille Kallen, Selma Diamond, Larry Gelbart and Woody Allen, among others.
Simon takes liberties, of course, since not all of those writers worked with each other at the same time but overlapped during the course of the show and Caesar’s subsequent series (Allen was a very young 18 or so years old, e.g.). For whatever reason, Simon curiously chooses to blend Brooks and Reiner into one character named Milt, while other roles more closely resemble a particular individual. Still, this is one of Simon’s very best efforts, and the machine-gun style of one-liners is, for the most part, fitfully funny.
Best of all, under the capable direction of Edward Coffield, the cast Coffield has assembled for this New Jewish Theatre production quintessentially defines the term ‘ensemble acting.’ Up and down the roster, this cluster of nine engaging performers delivers the master playwright’s droll lines with exquisite comic timing and tight-knit chemistry.
Other Info: Despite a few opening-night glitches, the NJT’s spiffy new digs at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre is a fabulous place, seemingly cavernous compared to the cozy confines of the company’s former residence. Simon’s steady stream of wisecracks is a serendipitous potion to welcome audiences to the new digs, and Coffield keeps the pace moving briskly with only an occasional bump.
Scott Neale’s set design takes advantage of the larger space, filling it with Stephanie Strohman’s 1950s style props to give the look and feel of a series’ ‘war room.’ Michele Friedman Siler’s costumes are priceless, particularly the plantation owner white suit adorning Milt in the second act, Glenn Dunn lights the action with the harsh fluorescent bulbs of the era and the droll sound design by Matthew Wills and Bobby Miller accentuates proceedings.
Alan Knoll has the very best time as Max, not only browbeating his fellow writers but also finding an opportunity to use his stylish Marlon Brando impersonation on a “Julius Caesar” skit. Bobby Miller’s comic timing is priceless as he extracts maximum humor potential from Milt’s litany of one-liners, while Gary Wayne Barker’s spasmodic bouts with hypochondria as Ira epitomize the familiar persona of Woody Allen.
Kirsten Wylder displays an impeccable New York accent as the token lady in the room, while B. Weller is amusingly braggadocio as the lone gentile, a chain-smoking Irishman who announces on a weekly basis his impending move to Hollywood. Jordan Reinwald’s Kenny (Larry Gelbart) is the nattily attired voice of reason, while the Russian accent of Bob Harvey’s Val character provides plenty of fodder for Milt as well as a sobering voice referencing the banal evil of McCarthy’s witch hunts. Christian Vieira does a fine job as the genial young Lucas, while Alexandra Woodruff is delightful as Max’s earnest secretary, shining in a brief bit as she vainly attempts to create a funny name to demonstrate her own wannabe writing skills.
A beautiful new venue, a sparkling script and a top-notch production all combine to make this “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” a memorable presentation.
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.