Note: Entire contents copyright 2004 by A. S. Waterman
Directed by Tony Annicone
Produced by Anthony Prichard
Lucas Brickman..... Rick Casey
Milt Fields..... Rick Braun
Val Skolsky..... Charles Arouth
Brian Doyle..... Ron Pelletier
Kenny Franks..... Joseph Carlone
Carol Wyman..... Kelly Jo Roarke
Max Prince..... Dennis Bouchard
Helen..... Karen DiIuro
Ira Stone..... Jim Whitaker
You'll have a good time at LAUGHTER ON THE 23RD FLOOR. It would be difficult not to. Described as the "flat-out funniest play in years" (Dennis Cunningham, CBS-TV), "screamingly funny" (Philadelphia Inquirer), "likely to remain the funniest comedy on Broadway for years" (Variety) and more, LAUGHTER ON THE 23RD FLOOR is the finest of comedy shows about the finest of comedy shows, a formula built for success. Now, at the Greenwich Odeum, Rhode Island's Academy Players offer you an opportunity to experience that rare vintage comedy, and it's an opportunity well worth taking.
Set in 1953, this play by Pulitzer Prize-winner Neil Simon propels us into the midst of a team of brilliant but loony writers for a 90-minute variety show, the Max Prince Show. This is a crew of compulsively creative misfits engaged in a permanent crossfire of one-liners. They live for and live their jobs, and the result is sheer comic genius. But television is changing and the network is chasing sponsors, faceless gods who want a wider audience that can't be limited by intelligence. Hence they want Max to cut his staff and his time slot to make room for shows with a lower common denominator. The Max Prince Show is just too darn smart, they say. Indeed it is, and just too funny for words.
Tony Annicone directs this well-cast production, making the most of each cast member's particular bent for humor. Dennis Bouchard, as master comedian Max Prince, pontificates while sitting spread-eagle in pinstripe boxer shorts -- a riotously funny scene, and poignant especially to those of us old enough to remember such images of 1950s baroque. Jim Whitaker, hysterical as hypochondriac writer Ira Stone, launches into an Al Jolson parody set in Julius Caesar's Rome, a beautifully sung and acted tune that brought a round of applause mid-scene. Charles Arouth, as the Russian-accented head writer Val Skolsky, has excellent delivery on phenomenal come-backs uttered with a straight face, reminding us what the Golden Age of comedy was all about. It's a privilege to be able to see it again.
It's all there -- the 1950s mannerisms and vocal inflections, the self-deprecating and wonderful Jewish humor, the one-liners that fly from the characters' mouths with such rapid-fire pace that you strain to catch them all, because you know you wouldn't want to miss any. It's the thrill of a bygone era, an intimate look at people of incomparable genius, and the doggone funniest dialogue that anyone could wish for.
Yet the story does not ignore its place in the real world. In it, McCarthyism lurks around every corner, menacing all of show business and threatening every artist's career. Academy's talented Players let us see it almost as a physical entity peering over their shoulders. At the same time, the beginning of the end of comedy's Golden Age hangs over their heads like the sword of Damocles. Under this duress, Simon's characters continue to create with the urgency of people who increasingly laugh at the world because they have to -- a portrayal that the cast handles well.
A former Vaudeville palace, the Greenwich Odeum takes the theatrical experience seriously, with comfortably spacious seating and excellent acoustics. Parking can be a problem, though, so it's a good idea to arrive early.
One would have liked to see a bit of history in the printed program. A glance around the room suggests that most of the audience wouldn't know that this play is based on a very young Neil Simon's own experience as a comedy writer for Sid Caesar, surrounded by a team of comedy-compulsives that later became Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Larry Gelbart and others. Although this omission probably didn't lessen anyone's enjoyment of the show, younger audience members might have missed out on some of the complexities that the actors had to convey.
It's also interesting to note that when Simon's characters bemoaned the dumbing-down of television comedy, they were referring to the likes of "Leave It to Beaver" and "Father Knows Best." Could they have envisioned to what depths "lowest common denominator" television would sink in the decades since then? Well, let's leave that to the television viewers and their remote controls. Theater-goers, catch this rare glimpse into a world that is brilliant, courageous, and just downright hysterically funny. You'll be glad you did.
LAUGHTER ON THE 23RD FLOOR runs February 20 through 29, 2004. Evening performances are at 8:00 p.m., with matinees on Sundays at 2:00 p.m.