Neil Simon’s autobiographical comedy, LAUGHTER ON THE 23rd FLOOR, offers an intimate, insightful, and uproarious glimpse into his experiences as a junior writer for Your Show of Show—the influential TV program that ran on NBC from 1950-54, and was the first to incorporate sitcom sketches into the traditional variety-show format. Set in New York, in the writers’ room of the fictional Max Prince Show in 1953, the play’s characters (whose names have been changed to protect the humorous—ba-dum-bump), represent some of the greatest comic geniuses of mid-century America, including Sid Caesar, Larry Gelbart, Mel Brooks, Mel Tolkin, and Simon himself. But the ‘50s were also the era of McCarthyism, and along with the stress of creating funny scripts, jokes, and scenarios for the live 90-minute weekly offering, the writing team faced the growing threat of the conservative period’s reactionary extremes—McCarthy’s Communist witch-hunt, the suppression of artists, and the cuts and ultimate cancellation of their popular show.
Bristol Riverside Theater’s current production of Simon’s 1993 Broadway hit, directed by Keith Baker, at times lacks the rapid-fire pace and high energy of true New York, and some of the actors’ lines are occasionally mumbled and hard to hear, but it keeps the laughs coming while provoking serious thought about the issues of censorship and the type of entertainment that appeals to middle-America. When network executives tell the show’s writers to stop creating their intelligent and sophisticated brand of humor for television audiences, and, instead, to “give ‘em shit,” one responds with the sardonic comment, “Maybe if Van Gogh or Goya were wrestlers they’d put ‘em on Saturday night.” That’s food for thought indeed.
Among BRT’s ensemble of nine are two of Philadelphia’s favorite masters of shtick, Bruce Graham and Benjamin Lloyd, playing writers Milt Fields and Ira Stone (based respectively on real-life writers Sheldon Keller and Mel Brooks). Graham captures Milt’s sarcastic one-liners and questionable sartorial choices to perfection (costumes by Gina Andreoli), and Lloyd is equally expert in his portrayal of Ira’s hilarious hypochondria. Other standouts in the cast are Philly-based actress K.O. DelMarcelle as the ditzy secretary/wannabe comedy-writer Helen, whose feigned New-York accent and loud volume are spot-on, and Carl Wallnau as the transplanted Russian Val Slotsky, who, to Milt’s ever taunting observation, hasn’t quite yet mastered the correct pronunciation of the “f-word”—a real problem in this group! March 18-April 13, 2014; www.brtstage.org.