Actor Ray Ficca has been well-known and well-loved in DC for many years. After an extended hiatus from our stages, he’s back in the limelight as hotheaded TV personality Max Prince in Keegan Theatre’s production of Laughter on the 23rd Floor, which began performances on Saturday. Ray sat down for coffee with DC Theatre Scene to discuss his disappearance three years ago, how Neil Simon’s play brought him back, and why appearing at the Church Street Theatre feels like coming home.
“I live in Arlington, VA and I work at the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts. But for the last three years I’ve been running a theatre up in Pennsylvania called Totem Pole Playhouse. It’s about 60 years old, and it’s an Equity summer stock. It has a rich, rich history. A lot of folks got their start there, and a lot of folks passed through on their way to some pretty impressive gigs.
I was named Artistic Director there three years ago. And to do that job right, I had to focus everything I had up there, when I wasn’t teaching at the Conservatory. So, I haven’t been onstage in Washington since that started.
Keegan Theatre, specifically, got me back. I know [Producing Artistic Director] Mark Rhea, [actor] Mike Innocenti, and [director] Colin Smith. We’re all friends, and supportive of each other’s work. So that was a huge component. But then there was the material! I mean, had it not been this show, and Keegan specifically, I wouldn’t be on stage right now in DC.
Like a lot of folks my age, I grew up with late-night TV. “The Honeymooners”, “The Dick Van Dyke Show”… And then in the early 70s, those prime-time lineups with “All In The Family”, “The Bob Newhart Show”, “The Carol Burnett Show”… I remember my father introducing me to Sid Caesar at a very young age. It was Caesar who taught me about comedy. And Jackie Gleason, Art Carney, Dick Van Dyke, Mel Brooks… That was part of growing up, part of what excited me.
Oh, and of course the old “Odd Couple” show. God, that was brilliant. All of that… I just feel so connected to it.
Now that we have YouTube, I still put on “The Honeymooners.” I still put on Sid Caesar’s opera sketch. I watch them, and I teach them at the Conservatory. For my comedy class, I would show video clips from “Your Show of Shows.” And just like my father said to me, I would say to my students: This is comedy!
I’m intense about this play. I love it. I love the material of that era. That’s why this offer to perform was so exciting. Playing Max Prince… This was a chance to play a part that encapsulates every favorite writer or director you’ve ever had.
I think Neil Simon is unquestionably one of the most important playwrights of the 20th century. I don’t think he gets his due. I’ve done a lot of Neil Simon plays, and Laughter on the 23rd Floor isn’t just a bunch of laughs. I mean, it’s funny. But it has a lot to say about this time in our history. This is about the Golden Age of Television, right after World War II. And the scripted shows at that time, they lost out to game shows. They died off because of shows like “Beat the Clock.” It’s been happening this decade too, in a different way. Look at the rise of reality TV and what it’s doing to our modern writers’ rooms. And we’re saying, ‘How can we let this happen?’ Well, it happened 60 years ago too. The end of an era.
This show is all about Neil Simon and the writers. Carl Reiner did the same thing on “The Dick van Dyke Show,” writing about the fun they had in the writers room. And of course, the writers in the play are based on the real people, Simon’s friends. It’s stunning. Here we have Mel Brooks, and Woody Allen, and Carl Reiner. A whole slew of the best of the best. These people went on to have such long careers, created such amazing things. They’re part of who we are. They’re in the fabric of our culture.
I wore a suit to the audition, because back then, all those guys wore suits. I’ve never worn a suit to an audition before. But really, some of the little things are actually the biggest things. Like, in a period piece like this, everyone wears suits. The way these men presented themselves was so important. What they wore, how they conducted themselves. In one scene, a character refers to how nice his shoes are compared to another character’s shoes. We’d never do that today! You could be wearing Chuck Taylors and I could be wearing opera pumps and we wouldn’t care. But for them, it was a status symbol.
So when you speak like these people, and use their mannerisms, you feel different. You hold yourself differently. You’re in a different era completely
Simon wrote this play in the 1990s. Which is interesting, because most of his other plays take place at the time in his life that he wrote them. Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, Plaza Suite… But then in the nineties, we see Simon looking back. It’s a memory play. Which also makes it easier, I think, for us to identify with him.
In part, he was writing about what it was like to be a Jewish writer during a time when TV was expanding across the country. And this particular brand of “intelligent humor,” or “east coast” humor — this deep sense of wit, or whatever you want to call it — I mean, it’s Jewish humor. The culture of it is rooted in the Jewish identities of these writers. And McCarthyism does play a part in the show. So, I don’t think he could have written this play in the 60s and 70s. This is an older, reflective author. And I think our challenge is to stay true to that. The audience is aware of a sense of retrospect. Our job is to try and put what we appreciated about these guys onstage.
I think if you enjoy the characters in the play, you get envious that you weren’t there to live it with them. But, you’re thankful that it all happened. It’s bittersweet.
My character, Max Prince, very much mirrors Sid Caesar. He was a terrific comedian, and his comedy was in his passion. He was so passionate about everything. I mean, there are stories about him coming to fisticuffs with Mel Brooks over an idea.
The writers are trying to get on his good side, and he can be biting to these guys. Really biting. This guy has a very difficult time showing his emotions — He can only express what he feels through the characters he plays. So, there’s the sketch itself, and the character doing the sketches, but then there’s the real character in the writers’ room. That’s one of the acting challenges.
But then, Max finds out that the writers are going to get fired. NBC’s about to cut him down from 90 minutes to an hour. Then he really gets angry. I mean, they’re his flesh and blood. They’re his life. So Max does what you never see people do — he goes to bat for the writers. Whole hog. If it wasn’t gonna work out for the writers, it wasn’t gonna work out for him. They were in it together.
I mean, if you were the ultimate master of an art form, and you realized that it was all about to be taken out from under you, would you be able to just move on? That’s the question. That’s the play. With some damn funny dialogue. No one could write it like Simon.
Frankly, I’m nervous. In a good way. This feels like a sabbatical from Totem Pole. I’m not calling the shots with this one — I’m just playing my role. And I feel re-energized having done that. It’s a fresh look at theatre and seeing how it can be run. It’s re-started a fire in me, getting on stage again.
Fun fact: I did my very first professional play at Church Street Theatre [where Laughter is now.]. It was with the Avalanche Theatre Company. We were a student theatre group founded by Georgetown alumni. We did Oedipus the King, and I loved every minute of it. I was just out of college and it was the first time I had ever acted for a paycheck.
What better way to revitalize? This is where I started. Keegan has always been the theatre where I’m coming to see my friends perform. So, it’s great to come back. It’s almost romantic.”