Laughter on the 23rd Floor
Mad Cow Theatre, 54 W. Church St., Orlando, Fla. ($25-$32), 407-297-8788, extended through Feb. 24
Long before Neil Simon was America's hottest playwright, he was the youngest writer on the staff of NBC's "Your Show of Shows." Still fondly remembered by octogenarian connoisseurs of television comedy, "Your Show of Shows," which aired from 1950 to 1954, was a weekly series starring Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca that featured some of the best comic sketches ever to grace the small screen. The movie "My Favorite Year" was inspired by "Your Show of Shows," and in 1993 Mr. Simon turned his own memories of working on the show into "Laughter on the 23rd Floor," a very thinly disguised roman à clef about the writers of a variety series called "The Max Prince Show."
Mr. Simon's career was in terminal decline by then, and "Laughter on the 23rd Floor" ran for just nine months on Broadway. But TACT/The Actors Company Theatre's 2012 Off-Broadway revival of "Lost in Yonkers" was so noteworthy that I've been seeking out regional productions of Mr. Simon's other plays to see how they hold up. That's what brought me to Orlando's Mad Cow Theatre, which mounted an impressive "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" in 2010 and is now doing "Laughter on the 23rd Floor." While Mr. Simon is no Tom Stoppard, Mad Cow's "Laughter on the 23rd Floor" is pulverizingly funny. Not only does the play work, but this production, directed by David Russell, is a case study in how to stage punch-line humor. It doesn't just make you laugh—it rips the laughs out of you.
"Laughter on the 23rd Floor" doesn't have much of a plot: NBC wants Max Prince (Philip Nolen) to dumb down his program in order to satisfy the small-town rubes, and he responds by declaring war on the network. While that really did happen to "Your Show of Shows," it feels like a contrivance, an excuse for comedy. Fortunately, the real point of "Laughter on the 23rd Floor" is not Max's relationship with the network but his relationship with his writers, who have no illusions about their half-crazy boss. As one of them explains, "Max gets in his limo every night after work, takes two tranquilizers the size of hand grenades and washes it down with a ladle full of scotch." That's a recipe for trouble, and for lunatic slapstick.
The excellence of this revival lies in the kill-or-be-killed ferocity with which the actors tear into the script, taking their cue from this exchange between Val (Tim Williams), the head writer, and Kenny (David Almeida), the show's resident egghead:
"A little aggression is good for writers. All humor is based on hostility, am I right, Kenny?"
"Absolutely. That's why World War II was so funny. Schmuck."
Everybody in the cast, especially Mr. Williams, throws their punches savagely hard, knowing that the Jewish humor in which Max's writers specialize is rooted in anger—and honesty. They get right in each other's faces and stay there.
Mr. Simon's reflexive reliance on tick-tock punch-line comedy is the most dated aspect of his plays, especially the darker ones that he wrote in his later years. Not only is postmodern comedy radically different in tone, but it makes no sense for most of the characters in a serious comedy like "Lost in Yonkers" to be frothing at the mouth with one-liners. But the characters in "Laughter on the 23rd Floor," like "The Sunshine Boys" before it, have a logical reason to be telling jokes, which is that they write them for a living ("If Max Prince laughs, my kids eat this week"). This gives the steady flow of wisecracks a firm foundation of dramatic sense.
The only weakness of this revival—and it's a very minor one—is that we never see how afraid Max is. Like so many comedians, he oozes fear from every pore, concealing it with rage. Messrs. Nolen and Russell have soft-pedaled this aspect of the role. It isn't that Mr. Nolen is anything less than wildly funny, but Mr. Simon's best comedies always profit from being played for truth, and I suspect that "Laughter on the 23rd Floor" would have been even more effective if the reason why Max gets bombed every night after work had been made a bit clearer.
I also wish that Mr. Russell, like Jenn Thompson, who directed TACT's "Lost in Yonkers," had tried cutting the weakest part of the script, which is the wide-eyed first-person narration supplied by Lucas (Connor Marsico), who is based on the author himself. Not only is it gratuitous—the plot makes sense without it—but the use of a framing device gives "Laughter on the 23rd Floor" a softening touch of sentimentality that undermines its theatrical potency. It's a mistake, though an understandable and tempting one, to play "Laughter on the 23rd Floor" for nostalgia. Play it straight and it feels completely contemporary.
Except for those two caveats, this revival is bulletproof. The physical comedy is vibrant but focused, and every part is sharply etched. Even Robyn Kelly is a hoot in the small part of Max's unfunny secretary, who longs (what else?) to write jokes. Mr. Nolen is properly monstrous, Mr. Williams unyieldingly blunt, and Glenn Gover, who plays a writer based on the young Mel Brooks, comes on so strong that you'll feel like you've stepped into a wind tunnel. I don't know when I've laughed harder, or gone home happier.—Mr. Teachout, the Journal's drama critic, blogs about theater and the other arts at www.terryteachout.com. Write to him at email@example.com.
A version of this article appeared February 1, 2013, on page D11 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Putting the Punch In Punch Line.