Laughter on the 23rd Floor
by Neil Simon
Directed by Sara Logan
Little Theatre of Manchester at Cheney Hall in Manchester, CT through March 4
The schtick runs thick in Neil Simon’s memory play Laughter on the 23rd Floor, now running at Cheney Hall through March 4th. A fictionalized reminiscence of Simon’s time as a staff writer on Your Show of Shows, this comedy packs a furious number of jokes. This is not surprising as the playwright shared that legendary writing room with the likes of Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Imogene Coca and Sid Caesar. With a rat-a-tat-tat machine-gunning of jokes, barely a minute goes by without some wisecrack or setup in place.
The story is more than just a succession of laughs. Max Prince is the king of television with a hit sketch show lampooning the headlines. Lucas, the Simon stand-in, is a newbie in Max’s writing room. Surrounded by yucksters, Lucas must deliver if he wants to survive in the high-pressure realm of joke-making. Soon enough, Max, Lucas and the rest of the writers all find themselves in survival mode fighting off network cutbacks, substance abuse and Senator Joseph McCarthy’s blacklisting. Despite the heavy themes, the characters laugh through their troubles.
With so much good schtick-to-your-ribs, Borscht Belt humor in the script, it seems Laughter on the 23rd Floor should have our sides splitting or at least our knees a bit sore from slapping. What comes from Little Theatre of Manchester’s 23rd Floor would be more aptly named chuckles. The comic pacing and somewhat understated performances are not quite there yet, that is until three heavy-hitters arrive late in the game to rev things up.
As Simon’s personification Lucas, John Stroiney is a pleasant, likeable figure. Oddly, Simon has given over 95% of the comic heavy-lifting to the other characters, so the role fails to make much of an impression. The first round of writers arrives after a brief intro by Stroiney: Milt the wise-acre (portrayed by Eddie Burke), Val the fretful head writer (Sal Uccello), Brian the big dreamer (Charles Harvey), Kenny the level-headed cut-up (Jim Power), and Carol the Imogene Coca stand-in (Melissa Rostkoski).
Each of them have a multitude of funny lines, but one out of every five jokes manages a chuckle and one out of ten of those chuckles becomes a genuine laugh. The early-going is too tame, too safe. The volume is turned up to 3 when one can only imagine how loud and raucous a room filled with Caesar, Brooks, Reiner, Coca and Simon would sound. Despite much of the drama in the script, mugging and oneupsmanship should be the order of the day, not timidity.
This all changes midway through the first act with the arrival of the handsome, bullish David Moske as Max Prince. More Jackie Gleason than Sid Caesar, Moske channels The Honeymooners’ star’s “bang-zoom-straight-to-the-moon” energy. Most importantly, he is big and loud and understands that subtlety needs to be parceled out strategically amidst the joking. Trish Urso, playing the cheeky assistant Helen, also wrings the funny out of her small part.
Best of all is Mike Ziska as Ira, the hypochondriacal joke writer. What could be a one-joke character like many of the earlier writers in the piece, becomes a multi-dimensional foil for Moske’s Max. His performance is nuanced, funny and spot-on in every regard. Director Sara Logan’s stacking of the deck with these three aces late in the game is somewhat wise, but the uneven scenes when these three are not on stage find the energy seriously flagging.
Hopefully, as the run progresses, the whole cast will raise the total comic pitch so that there are not quite so many peaks and valleys. While the Catskills humor may seem dated, the comedy is timeless. We can all relate to the political tone of the piece and the hard economy forcing cutbacks. Most of all, LTM’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor proves we will always be in need of a good laugh.
Photo by Chris Heustis for Photosynthesis.