You want funny? Keegan Theatre has funny. Laughter on the 23rd Floor. They killed it, nailed it, knocked it out of the park.
Neil Simon is easily the most prolific and highly awarded (Emmys, Tonys, Writer’s Guild of America, Golden Globes, Outer Critic’s Circle, Drama Desk and the Pulitzer Prize not to mention the 2006 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor) playwright of our time. The “Brighton Beach Trilogy” and Lost in Yonkers provided incontrovertible proof that he is much more than a brilliant comedy writer. He is one of America’s finest playwrights/screenwriters ever, period. His body of work in terms of both quantity and quality from Broadway to Hollywood may never be equalled. He is the Cal Ripken of American playwrights — maybe the Babe Ruth.
Even though he has written wonderfully poignant and deeply moving plays, he will always be remembered for his genius at writing funny. Nobody in the “modern” era, that would be NOBODY, has written more or better funny than Neil Simon. Countless are the community theatres that have bolstered their box offices simply by scheduling a Simon play. You want an evening of hilarity, take your pick – a French farce or Neil Simon. Take Simon – he’s better known and money in the bank.
The laughs at the Keegan come out faster than the burgers from the grill at Hamburger Haven in the clutches of a midnight munchies run. In fact, there are times when they come out too fast. The only minor flaw with this production has to do with some timing issues in the first act. I’m sure I missed more than a few good lines because I had not yet recovered from the most recent side splitter. The uniformly excellent cast will straighten that out I have no doubt.
As with many Simon plays, Laughter on the 23rd Floor is based on a real life Simon experience. In 1953, he and his brother, Danny, were hired as part of the writing team for Sid Caesar’s “Show of Shows” on NBC, easily the most sophisticated and funniest comedy show on television at the time. And what a team of writers – Larry Gelbart, Mel Tolkin, Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks, just to name the more famous of the group. Throw them all together in the same room with a half-crazed Sid Caesar and you have the makings of comic mayhem.
Let the superlatives begin with Ray Ficca’s hilarious portrayal of Max Prince, aka Sid Caesar. Ficca looks a lot like Caesar, and takes full advantage of the similarities. He brings down the house on more than one occasion with simple yet elegant changes in his facial expressions or his manic and remarkably true to Caesar movement and gestures. He elicits gales of laughter at the beginning of the second act over the course of a five minute scene during which he speaks perhaps three whole sentences. And his Sid Caesar send up of Marlon Brando is worth the price of at least two admissions.
Bradley Smith as the Russian-born head writer, Val, at any other time or place could easily steal the show. His only problem here is that he is matched up against Ficca and several other very fine actors who know their way around comedy. Smith as Val and John Loughney as Lucas, the Simon character who also acts as a narrator, provide anchor points that allow Michael Innocenti as Ira (Mel Brooks), Matt Dewberry as Milt (Carl Reiner), and Dan Van Why as Kenny (Larry Gelbart) to run wild.
At one point, Innocenti and Van Why play out a comic duel to see who can come up with the funniest names – the winner to walk away with the other man’s shoes. Innocenti has some of the toughest comedy to play outside of Ficca’s Caesar. The Ira character is a deadly serious hypochondriac, and Innocenti is at his funniest when he is playing out his disease of the day. Van Why is blessed with a sense of comic timing that rivals and sometimes outdoes Ficca. The man knows how and when to deliver a punch line. Both clearly know their way around comedy and are seriously funny.
Matt Dewberry as Milt/Carl Reiner has a particular challenge in portraying a desperate man going through a failed marriage all the while delivering punch line after punch line .– badda boom, badda bing! Underneath his comic veneer, there are hints of real suffering that bring an added dimension to the play. He walks a fine line in fine fashion. The highlight of his performance comes in the second act when he discovers that Caesar has a pathological revulsion toward white suits. And what has Milt worn to work that day? Killer funny stuff.
Brianna Letourneau as Carol/Selma Diamond and Kevin Hasser as Brian/Michael Stewart are not given anywhere near the same comic material to work with as the others although Letourneau more than holds her own on the humor scale when she shows up painfully pregnant in the second act.
In typical Simon fashion, there is a not so comic reality monster lurking in the background. The greed of corporate America, in this case the television networks, winning out over creativity and ingenuity is all too familiar as are the horrific political scare tactics employed by the McCarthy hearings and the blacklisting of dozens of fine artists. Simon puts a nice coda on it by having his character announce the McCarthy censure vote count but it’s still a little unsettling, particularly at this point in the current Presidential primary circus.
Set designed by Samina Veith is exactly as one would expect for the period and allows director, Colin Smith to direct the traffic and use the various furniture pieces to maximize the comic potential of this very funny play. Given the quality of the cast, he was wise to give them wide berth to play out Simon’s script.
Hats off to the Keegan. As easy as Simon makes comedy look, it is actually more difficult in many ways than straight drama. This cast and crew get it right and the results are almost too funny for words.
Laughter on the 23rd Floor
By Neil Simon
Directed by Colin Smith
Produced by Keegan Theatre
Reviewed by Larry Bangs
Running time: Two hours and twenty minutes including one 10 minute intermission