Several of Neil Simon’s plays were influenced by real life events. Chapter Two and his trilogy of stories starring Eugene (Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound) took inspiration from important periods of the writer’s career and personal struggles.
Just as in those tales, Simon has incorporated reality in his script, Laughter on the 23rd Floor. His comedy is a tribute to the writers and star of one of the most acclaimed comedic shows-the 1950’s variety series, “Your Show of Shows.” As expected, the plot is a good fit for the Simon-friendly North Coast Repertory Theatre.
Brett Alters plays Simon’s alter ego, Lucas Brickman. He writes for the comedic series, “The Max Prince Show.” Shy and friendly, Lucas witnesses behavior in an NBC-TV office that is both lively and insane. Some of his peers include the nutty hypochondriac, Ira Stone (Omri Schein), the quick on his feet goofball, Milt Fields (Louis Lotorto) and the bright sole woman on the staff, Carol Wyman (Amanda Sitton).
While the joke tellers deeply respect Max (Artistic Director of North Coast Rep, David Ellenstein) they are also intimidated by his paranoia and addiction to tranquilizers. Prone to rage, he grows increasingly angry and unsettled after NBC makes demands that affect everyone involved with “The Max Prince Show.”
Director Tom Markus creates an environment where the energy changes in a split second. Writers for Max’s program can spend long periods of time-sharing casual quips before rushing to finish a sketch.
A telling, and often hilarious, idea that Simon examines is that joke telling among comedy writers can be viewed as a competition. Many on Max’s team view being funny as a way of being superior to others. This is especially evident during an intense joke-off between Ira and the lone gentile writer for Max, Brian Doyle (Associate Artistic Director of North Coast Rep, Christopher M. Williams). Their humorous verbal competition becomes similar to watching a live boxing match.
The closest thing to a protagonist is Lucas. He doesn’t have a lot of dialogue when others are onstage, but Alters’ nebbish enthusiasm gets audiences invested into his world.
Lucas does share personal details about his job and acquaintances through several monologues. If Simon’s prose sometime over explains certain situations, Alters and Matt Novotny’s lighting allow viewers to feel close to the rising artist.
Everyone who Lucas works with is based on at least one writer from “Your Show of Shows.” For instance, the extremely neurotic Ira is based on Mel Brooks. Schein, along with Phil Johnson, Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper, Lotorto, Williams and Sitton have time to be witty and occasionally insightful.
Ellenstein’s portrayal of the Caesar-esque Max strikes a difficult balance of confident charisma, hysterical insanity and humane generosity. Max might be refreshingly honest, but he can also be dangerously loopy. In Max’s angriest moments, Ellenstein causes more than a little damage to the writers’ room. What happens to Marty Burnett’s set might leave a couple of viewers both impressed and stunned.
In spite of his flaws, Max cares deeply about his crew. He treats the writers like equals and knows how valuable they are to his success.
Although early scenes are focused solely on comical moments, Laughter on the 23rd Floor eventually turns into a touching glimpse of 1950’s America. Its wholesomeness, McCarthyism, pop culture and gender inequality are discussed in realistically casual ways.
Elisa Benzoni’s costumes are full of 1950’s attire, but her funniest designs go to Milt. Her outrageous clothing matches his carefree personality.
Melanie Chen’s music selections enhance the different tones in the night. While her use of Laurie Johnson’s “Happy Go Lively” fits in with the lighthearted first two-thirds, a jazzy instrumental rendition of “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” contributes to an understatedly emotional Christmas Eve conclusion.
Even if you’ve never seen a single episode of “Your Show of Shows,” Simon’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor works as an uproarious look into this classic show and the behind-the-scenes world of early network TV. It’s another reminder about how reality can lead to highly enjoyable entertainment.