Before he made a name for himself as the leading purveyor of the scripts beloved by community theater groups, Neil Simon was a junior joke writer on Sid Caesar's seminal Your Show of Shows, the granddaddy of TV variety and sketch comedy shows. A tender 25-year-old so shy he would whisper his ideas to co-worker Carl Reiner (who would then offer them aloud for Caesar's approval), Simon was surrounded by the writers who would shape television and film comedy for decades to come. Larry Gelbart would go on to co-write the nonmusical parts of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the movie Tootsie, and the TV series M*A*S*H. Mel Tolkin wrote 36 episodes of All in the Family. Mel Brooks would, of course, go on to be Mel Brooks. The story of what it was like being surrounded by such influential maniacs is Laughter on the 23rd Floor, now playing at CenterREP.
There's not much of a plot, per se. But while most workplaces offer up intrigues aplenty, how many offer a story easily told in two acts? Caesar (here, "Max Prince") and his writers battle deadlines, the network, and each other. Somehow no blood is shed, even if Caesar/Max (a near-rabid Andrew Hurteau) does some serious property damage. "We were just a bunch of very gifted, neurotic young Jews punching our brains out," Gelbart says in his memoir, and it shows; between eating bagels and tossing each other's shoes out the window, the characters talk politics and psychoanalysis, hot topics in the early '50s.
There's something that just doesn't jell in the first act, even with Barbara Damashek directing a reliable cast (especially using T. Edward Webster, the Mel Brooks character, in an unusual way). Simon has his stand-in Lucas narrating, which feels contrived, and the kid playing him lacks the magnetism of his castmates, making the moments where he explains things to the audience leaden. Happily, the second act is much better than the first. The pace picks up, the situations get more absurd, there's a near-strangling, and the tension builds with the news that someone may get fired. There's also a great bit where we see the characters actually doing some work, with Hurteau showing off a brilliant Brando as the writers spoof the movie Julius Caesar.
The humor is very Jewish and very East Coast, sarcastic and one-liner heavy: "All humor is based on hostility," one of the Writing Room old-timers explains. The amount of cussing in this play might surprise Simon fans. "I used to speak demurely," the show's one female writer says of her life before joining the staff. "If I were in Rome, I would speak Italian. I'm here, so I speak 'fuck.'"
But this isn't just a look at how neurotic funny people are, or vice versa. There is a political undercurrent to this story, which takes place in the same milieu as Good Night, and Good Luck, the movie about Edward R. Murrow battling Joseph McCarthy. The achromatic set and costumes even look like Good Night, which was shot in black and white. Laughter is also a document of a time when a debate was raging over the intersection of patriotism and free expression, a debate Caesar's writers were scrupulously trying to keep off the air in a bid to keep their jobs. Watch Laughter in that light, while trying to figure out which character represents which real-life writer, and it's much more interesting.
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