Park Square Theatre’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor is a witty and, at times, manic comedy. Neil Simon wrote this play in the 1990s reliving the glory days of television comedy writing for live TV. The play is about his time as a script writer for Sid Caesar’s Show of Shows from 1950 to 1954. The play’s main attraction is the raunchy interchanges with some of the best comic geniuses of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.
Director Zach Curtis brings together a wonderful cast throwing out zingers left and right. His staging of Neil Simon’s play seems very familiar to anyone who saw the Mel Brooks’ movie My Favorite Year, or the Carl Reiner produced series The Dick Van Dyke Show. Both Reiner and Brooks were also writers on Caesar’s show. Simon’s play creates characters that are based on Reiner and Brooks. The program’s synopsis lists the other real-life counterparts for each character, including Sid Caesar, Larry Gelbart, Mel Tolkin, Selma Diamond and Michael Stewart. Most of these writers went on to achieve notable success in show business after Caesar’s show went off the air. All of the actors provide considerable humor in their roles, except for the Neil Simon character portrayed by John Catron who appears to be the straight man in this group of zanies.
During the first act, I kept glancing at the program to see who each character was supposed to be. The first act spends a lot of its time introducing the characters, but the second act is when the humor becomes virtually non-stop. My favorite performer was Craig Johnson who played Kenny Franks, the Larry Gelbart based character, who was one of the major creative forces behind the TV series MASH. Johnson, with understated mannerism reminiscent of Jack Benny, shot off some of the best one-liners in the show. Michael Paul Levin plays the role of Max Prince, the Sid Caesar character, with such high energy that it became a little too much at times. The funniest lines were when the writers were talking about Prince, rather than when Prince was present.
Karen Wiese-Thompson portrays the Selma Diamond-based character and Diamond is probably best known as the inspiration for Sally Rogers on the Van Dyke series. Although there is a lot of similarity to the writer’s scenes in the Van Dyke series, Laughter’s scenes are considerably raunchier with the frequent use of the “F” word. As Wiese-Thompson states in one of the best lines of the play, if she worked in France she would speak French, but because she works on the show, she speaks “F—.”
Ari Hoptman effectively plays the annoying, hypochondriac Ira who I would have assumed was Woody Allen (who also was a writer for the show) but Ira is supposedly based upon Mel Brooks. Shades of Brooks’ comic manic genius show through when Hoptman hops on the table with a big musical ending for one of the show’s comic skits.
The play has some mention of Joe McCarthy’s Senate hearings on Communism, the black list and NBC’s efforts to dumb down the show so it would appeal to the Prairie states. The best part of Act II is when Prince and his writers put together a spoof of the Marlon Brando movie “Julius Caesar,” a totally slapstick, verbal pun skit that represented the “intellectualism” that NBC believed did not appeal to middle America.
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