Neil Simon's 'Laughter' at Walnut Street Theatre: Demented, wacky, nostalgic
It filled the theater, kept them laughing all night, and got them standing and cheering at the end. Laughter on the 23rd Floor by Neil Simon is the second of a Simon double for the Walnut Street Theater (where Last of the Red-Hot Lovers is also playing before going on tour). Ideal for the venue, Laughter is a full-cast, full-tilt show played at the top of the lungs, appealing to a sense of humor (and history) shared by an audience of a certain age (including me).
An early-1990s play, Laughter marked a moment’s return to Simon’s rapid-fire style of the early 1960s. It’s also, delightfully, a roman à clef, a lightly fictionalized memento of Simon’s hitch with one of the most gifted comedy writing staffs in TV history: that of Your Show of Shows (1950-1954), Sid Caesar’s wacko revue that survived just long enough to become immortal.
The heart, soul, and naughty bits of this production is the hectic, demented cast. Director Frank Ferrante and company stay faithful to the real people who inspired each character. For Neil Simon we have Lucas (played winningly by Davy Raphaely), the newbie on the team, also our narrator, sparely used. Max Prince is the Sid Caesar figure, played with distracted, athletic, lunatic abandon by Ferrante. Carol, a compound of Lucille Kallen and Selma Diamond, is done well by Leah Walton, especially as she gets more and more pregnant. Val, a reminiscence of the great Mel Tolkin, played with angst and an accent supposed to be Ukrainian/Russian by Tony Freeman, has several of the night’s funniest lines. And for Mel Brooks we have Ira, hypochondriacal, petulant, insecure, with blurts of brilliance, performed by Scott Greer with dashes of Orson Welles and Vince Vaughan. This is a formidable ensemble likely to become even more cohesive as the play’s run continues.
They give a bracing account of a tremulous, sparkling moment, and of why the show was so great. We hang on as one-liners cascade – “I offered to take her on a second honeymoon. She said she didn’t like the first one that much”; “You picked a bad time to come in late”; “Pope Pius approves of psychoanalysis! This means that from now on, confession will be $80 an hour” – and egos clash and the front office tries to shorten the show and dumb it down.
Beneath it all lies a dread, dark time of Stalin, McCarthy, the Rosenbergs, and the Blacklist. The set, by David P. Gordon, is a loving evocation of the dingy writer’s room (with a plate of bagels in the corner), and the lighting by J. Dominic Gordon and spot-on costumes (including a notably white suit) by Mark Mariani are echt-1950s.
Yet the play itself pulls in several directions. As a study of a team of rivals, it’s aerobic and hilarious; as a look back, it’s nostalgic, even sentimental; there’s also fear and rage, starting with Max, suicidal, drugged out, terrified his show will fail, his writers starve, and the vicious front-office morons win. The anger is Simon’s, too, at anti-Semitism, fascism, tribalism, the triumph of the idiocracy.
These cross-currents don’t always flow together. I always wished Carol had had a larger part. “I can’t survive in here as a woman,” she says. “But as a writer, I can hold my own with anyone” – hearty applause. But it’s her one moment; the role is underwritten. I also wish Simon had brought on Imogene Coca (Caesar’s wondrous sidekick on Your Show of Shows) somehow, but no.
So these talented comics (the characters and the actors alike) are riding an unstable steed. At times, Laughter is among the funniest things Simon has done. (Told to move to California, Val says: “If you’re a Jew, you end up in the desert, no matter what.”) We see only one completed skit: a send-up of Julius Caesar starring “Marlo Brandon.” The death of Caesar played by Brando played by Sid Caesar played by Ferrante is exhausting and ineffable. And when Ira saves the skit by thinking up a sillily brilliant conclusion, we channel a moment of crazy history.
It couldn’t last and didn’t. TV was expanding with the country, and front-office worries over how the South and West would take to these shenanigans ended up killing Your Show of Shows. And the writers! Writing jokes, begging for love, and fearing collapse … why did they keep it up? Maybe because, as one puts it, “we’ll never have this much fun again in our entire lives.” The Walnut’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor reminds us of that fun.
Laughter on the 23rd Floor. Through March 5. Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut St. Tickets: $20-$85. Information: 215-574-3550, walnutstreettheatre.org.
Published at Fri, 27 Jan 2017 00:44:04 +0000