Sand Lake Presents a Loud, Lively “Laughter on the 23rd Floor”
Neil Simon is delivering the Christmas cheer at Sand Lake Center for the Arts. The most successful American playwright in history, Marvin Neil Simon (1927-2018) was a Brooklyn Jew who grew up to write more than 30 plays and nearly as many screenplays. He received more Oscar and Tony nominations combined, and at one time had four successful productions running simultaneously on Broadway.
The play “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” is an autobiographical look at Simon’s first job in show business which was writing for the tv variety show “Your Show of Shows,” starring Sid Caesar. In the writing room with Caesar and Simon were fellow illustrious comic minds Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, Carl Reiner, Selma Diamond and Mel Tolkin among others.
The play is a behind the scenes look at the writer’s room in 1953 and how these guys and gal wrote one of the most successful tv shows of the time. They argued, fought, made fun of each other, wrote jokes and tried to make the boss happy. The boss, here named Max Prince (a fantastic Brian Sheldon), enters in an outsize rage of distraction at dealing with the corporate bosses at NBC. The bosses want to cut the show down to the hour and homogenize the content coming out of this garrulous, very Jewish, culturally literate writer’s room as television spreads it’s influence throughout the country to the south and Midwest. America wants to see more shows, we’re told, which are more like themselves-“Leave it to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best.”
Anthony Halloway plays the Neil Simon avatar as he has a couple other times in the past two seasons at Curtain Call Theatre in “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and “Broadway Bound.” This time he is playing Lucas Brickman and he has his Simon act down cold. His dialect and inflections are perfect as the evening’s host. It felt as comfortable as catching up with an old friend on the stoop. If he starts the play rather haltingly, it leads us into the maelstrom to come slowly, and Holloway quickly finds his place among the writers competing to get their jokes into the show.
First to arrive to work is Milt Fields, energetically played by Bill Douglas in a slump shouldered, eager to please, milquetoast manner in an effort to ingratiate himself to his titanic boss. He is very successful currying favor with Prince onstage and with the audience all night long.
Next to arrive is Val Skolsky, the Russian head writer played by Fred Sirois. The actor is very comfortable being loud and does some very good work in that register but goes over the top for too long at one confrontation at the table to the point where I flinched in discomfort. His frightened response to being asked who he has seen at “the meetings” equating his ethnicity with communism draws laughs and sympathy from the audience.
Also very good and having a grand time in his role is Dennis Skiba as Kenny Franks, the character modeled after Larry Gelbart (who created “M*A*S*H”) who can throw off the one liners with the best of them. Skiba has a very relaxed, playful energy that is a lot of fun to watch. The other writers on staff are Henry DiMaria as Brian Doyle, the big shot who has his eyes set on Hollywood, Erica Pandolfo as Carol Wyman, the only woman in the room who just wants to be seen as a writer, and Jerred Hickey as the hypochondriac Ira Stone modelled on Mel Brooks who is given a series of entrances begging for attention. There’s also the secretary Helen played by Grace Burkhart who is offstage and screamed throughout the play, but emerges into her own character late in the play at a drunken office Christmas party where she has a great deadpan block of Milt’s advances.
Finally, there is royalty himself, Max Prince, played by SLCA’s Managing Director Brian Sheldon. He makes the most of his time onstage and is a constant whirl ripping off his pants, feinting and parrying with his cigar for an epee and doing a hysterical dance of death as Brando receiving Caesar’s backstabs. As good as his active physical work is his deep-rooted anger at the corporate interference with his show and even more so, his righteous fury at Senator Joseph McCarthy and his bullying red-baiting tactics. This week, more than a few in the audience can picture themselves as Max punching holes in walls as the fear mongering in Washington continues to this day.
It’s a great and brave selection by the Circle Theatre Players and first-time director Melanie Douglas who has told this story with a clarity, force and perspective which is exceptionally impressive. Her characters are all strong and everyone’s objectives and obstacles are very clear. I wish that the room (set design by Bob and Sharon Dawes) was a little more used and useful and the entire cast was living onstage as active as Sheldon. It is a most respectable debut and I greatly appreciate the selection of this play as an alternative to the usual Christmas fare.
The play ends with the Christmas party. Lucas wraps up how the show ended creating an emotional climax, which is topped in his narration with the Senate’s censure of Senator McCarthy. As if. As the play put it, “the tears ran down our faces, and only some of it was from laughter.”