7/14/2019 LAUGHTER ON THE 23RD FLOOR Stage Door Players
**** ( B+ )
IT’S FINE!!! ALRIGHT? FINE!!!
From 1950 through 1954, Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca “Wrote the Rule Book” for television variety shows and sketch comedy, with Your Show of Shows. Employing a veritable “Who’s Who” of comedy writers at the start of their careers (Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Neil and Danny Simon, Mel Tolkin, Selma Diamond, Joseph Stein, Larry Gelbart, Michael Stewart, and (in a later incarnation) Woody Allen), Your Show of Shows was a ratings favorite and remains on most “Best Series Ever” listings. Its creation formed the backdrop for many subsequent creations, including Carl Reiner’s The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966), the Mel Brooks produced musical, My Favorite Year, and Neil Simon’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor, now getting a lively production at Dunwoody’s Stage Door Players.
Lucas (Shaun MacLean) is a recent hire in the Writer’s Room of Max King’s variety Show. He is our narrator into the eccentric and, at times, Full-Flush Loony antics of the other writers, including Milt (Mark Gray), the self-styled “joke Machine,” Val (Doyle Reynolds), the escapee from Stalin’s Russia, Brian (Daniel Parvis), the thickly-brogued Irish chain-smoker who dreams of a life in Hollywood, Kenny (Matt Baum), the seemingly “straight man” who tries to inject a note of calm, Carol (Erin Burnett), who wants to be just “one of the guys” (this IS 1950’s America after all), Helen (Rachel Frawley), Max’s put-upon “Gal Friday” with the comic sensibilities of, well, of a put-upon Gal Friday, and Ira (Davin Allen Grindstaff), the hypochondriac nebbish who is actually based on Mel Brooks and NOT Woody
Allen, no matter what you’ve heard. And ruling them all, bringing them all into this space and binding them, is Max Prince himself (Stage Door Artistic Director Robert Egizio in a terrifically over-the-top performance).
So, in Act One, we meet this stable of eccentrics and watch as they bicker and feud, as they worry about politics and spouses, as they hide from the boss who is quite capable of tossing them out the window, and, above all, as they make comedy. In Act Two, a few months have passed, the NBC Executives are requesting cuts and oversight, and a real paranoia generated by the mean little Senator from Wisconsin is weighing everybody down. On the other hand, Julius Caesar with Marlon Brando has just been released, so a pointed (and hysterical) parody unfolds before our eyes. (I could have done without the Don Corleone mannerisms for “Brando,” because, well The Godfather is still twenty years in the future.) It all winds down to the final days of the show and a rueful coda as everyone creates a happy ending before moving on to their own disparate endings.
This is a terrific “backstage” look at the sorts of personalities and workings that went into the making of a classic, even if it very thinly fictionalized. Yes, it’s territory we’ve been through before especially of we were fans of Dick Van Dyke’s show (and believe me, I was). But Mr. Simon is a wizard with character and with dialogue, and this is probably the funniest play of his later years (it was first produced in 1993 with Nathan Lane). In spite of how the egomaniacal Max King is written, it is reported that the play had Sid Caesar’s enthusiastic “stamp of approval,” and an air of nostalgia and good-hearted rivalry permeates the whole thing and makes it go down as smoothly as, well, as smoothly as a sketch from Your Show of Shows.
This cast is greatly supported by director Kate Donadio, who keeps the pace lively and the large cast in constant movement, though I felt the audience on extreme House Right (where I was placed) may have been ignored a bit too much for my tastes, The set by Chuck Welcome (including a grim and grimy Manhattan backdrop) and the props by Kathy Ellsworth really help set the place if not the period (the easy chair center stage was more 1970’s than 1950’s – I bought one in 1977 that looks exactly like it). Sound and Costumes are spot on, and the whole production looks and sounds great.
So, if you are a fan of Neil Simon – and I have to confess I like even has “bad” plays – and a fan of how comedy television used to be made, I daresay you’ll enjoy this as much as I did. It’s always a pleasure to see Mr. Egizio using his considerable energy and charisma ON stage instead of just in the director’s chair, and I have seen (and even worked with) many of these actors before, and they NEVER fail to impress me.
Laughter on the 23rd Floor is Neil Simon at his most mature, and it is a delight to experience. Maybe not quite Sid-Caesar-Imogene-Coca(*) delightful, but to be fair that’s an extraordinarily high bar that I don’t think anyone will ever meet.
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #SDPLaughter23rdFloor)
* Not to Name-Drop, but one of the joys of my long theatre-going time was seeing Ms. Coca in the original cast of On the Twentieth Century. She was a comic genius, and even in her later years, could generate laughter with a look, a posture, and a roll of her eyes.