Laughter on the 23rd Floor

Warning: This review may contain spoilers.

In too many mass media, there is a time when its youthful artistic ideals and thoughtful eccentricities are forced aside for a mercenary push for the lowest common denominator audience. This Neil Simon play recreates his early career enduring this transition for American television with laughter tempered by a wistful regret for what was lost.

The story is told by Lucas Brickman (Matthew J. Stewart) who begins his career as a junior writer on a popular comedy-variety TV show starring Max Prince (Michael Wilmot). As Lucas adjusts to  the writers’ idiosyncratic world, that collection of comic creatives find themselves facing the end of an era with their boss. With the medium they’ve mastered shifting to an incompatible corporate reality, their clashing personalities threaten to accelerate the painful loss with tragic haste.

For those who grew up with The Dick Van Dyke Show, this play is essentially a version of it focusing on the workplace scenes based on the experiences both Neil Simon and series creator Carl Reiner shared writing for Your Show of Shows/Caesar’s Hour for Sid Caesar in the 1950s. Like the earlier example, you will enjoy a hilariously believable environment where a bunch of creative people are working together to create as much funniness as they can for a living. While there could have been more focus on the gang at work, it is a legitimate variation on the theme to see Simon’s take on that special time for TV.

With that setting, the players are allowed to play for laughs with all their energy, if occasionally to cartoonish excess. For instance, Tim Bourgard as Val plays up the usual funny foreigner shtick for all its worth without seeming like a complete stereotype. Meanwhile, Paul Blower is a delight as the play’s Carl Reiner homage as a wizened comedy veteran, especially when has he deal with a wardrobe emergency that could only happen in a workplace like his.

By contrast, Chris Albert has an enjoyable workaday attitude as Brian Doyle with his idle dreams while Megan Williamson saves her appeal as a loyal underling who’s one half-shot to show her comedy chops is a miserable failure. Amid all this, Stewart and Mark Speechley are perfect as Lucas and Kenny Franks respectively, mild mannered bedrocks of sanity in this comedic professional maelstrom. They play brilliantly in such subtle fashion, Lucas as the young newcomer trying to function in this wacky world and Kenny as the intellectual trooper who has mastered the process, while they both charm the audience with ease.

Unfortunately, while Wilmot’s disguised Sid Caesar character feels enjoyably believable as the star of a demanding variety show with all his career enhancing eccentricities, some don’t have that contextual saving grace. For instance, Rick Smith plays his role too broadly with his whining hypochondria to the point of overshooting his dramatic goal of his character annoying his co-workers, only to do the same to the audience as collateral thespian damage. Likewise, Jo-Anne Bishop is basically given nothing to really establish her character as a fellow writer and is relegated as an entertainingly snarky non-entity in the story until her role is specifically spelled out at the second act. That is a failure of writing that I wish I would not have experienced with Neil Simon to see the major female lead feel so shortchanged.

However, girding all these performances is an honest historical context that early 1960s TV could never depict in either facts or tone. That especially applies to the play’s bittersweet element as the characters succumb to American television’s expanding and changing audience as its presumed sophistication plummets. As a result, you see the tragedy of people doing their intelligent best and losing because they made that effort by network executives’ marketing assumptions that wouldn’t be challenged until the late sixties. That theme alone makes for a compelling story about a changing medium where creative expression about the real world would soon have to reside in The Outer Limits or The Twilight Zone to shine.

To complement this story, the stagecraft is a joy of artful griminess as it creates the quintessential writers’ office with all its 1950s smoke-stained ambiance that barely contains the professional silliness inside. In fact, it is those moments when that containment fails that really impresses me with subtle arrangements that deliver a comic jolt with shocking effectiveness as Max acts out. It gets even better with the windows that occasionally let in the larger world that has to suffer the kinetic elements of the characters’ antics, although sometimes there was some distracting inconsistency with the lighting.

There are few times when one’s life provides a setting where comedy and more came so naturally. With a little historical perspective played by a good cast of players, this play gives the Golden Age of Live American Television a powerful feel of memory that was snuffed out by unfunny realities.

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