Neil Simon’s LAUGHTER ON THE 23RD FLOOR follows a troupe of wacky variety show writers struggling to keep their spirits up and their sanity intact when facing the imminent demise of their livelihoods. Yes, it’s as funny and morbid as it sounds.
Set in New York City, 1953, LAUGHTER is based on Simon’s time writing for Your Show of Shows, a 1950s variety show that starred the larger-than-life showman Sid Caesar and featured such writers as the infamous Mel Brooks.
There are several parallels to be found between the era of LAUGHTER and today. Then, McCarthyism had a stronghold on the throats of the media industry; throughout his election campaign, Trump denigrated the media and now, in his first week in office, has reportedly banned those running certain government social media accounts from posting information. Then, women had to act like men in the office or risk not being taken seriously; last weekend, thousands of women in America marched for, among other things, the right to be treated as autonomous humans by their new president.
An exception, though: The otherwise most level-headed character, Carol, played by Leah Walton, asks the others exasperatedly if we Americans are beyond racial jokes. The answer in the show is a resounding no. Carol is responding to her coworkers’ constant, exaggerated needling of each others’ religions—Jews vs. Christians—and ethnic backgrounds. But the jabs are relatively friendly: At the end of the day, they all love each other (and at the end of the play, they say it, too). It’s harder to imagine things ending so well today if officemates were as explicit in their disdain.
But the show probably isn’t meant to be a grand comment on The State of Things. It’s meant to be fun. It’s meant to be silly. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments—such as when the hypochondriac, Ira, played by the always-awesome Scott Greer, realizes he’s mistaken a terrible case of gas for a deadly illness. The humor is slapstick and over-the-top.
[Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street] January 17-March 5, 2017; walnutstreettheatre.org.