note: entire contents copyright 2001 by Larry Stark
Set Design by John Quinn
Lighting Design by Jerry Sykes
Costumes Design by Sarah Evans
Properties by Karen Smigliani
Stage Manager Liz Lingard
Max Prince. ............Bill Harrington
I finally caught the stunning production of it at The Footlight Club, and now I know why, a few years back, the odd title "Laughter on The 23rd Floor" popped up about a dozen times all across the area one summer. It wasn't just the playwright's bankable name and track-record. This is one of Neil Simon's very best plays --- the triumphal cap to his series of autobiographical studies, and a loving hymn of praise to the team of writers who made "Your Show of Shows" unforgettable, but especially to the twisted genius of comedian Sid Caesar. On the Eliot Hall stage a careful cascade of bravura performances hits just about every note Doc Simon wrote in a continually surprising off (and through) the wall production.
At one point in the Boston tryouts of a show still coalescing, veteran comedian Bert Lahr was asked to bulk out the show with some routines and, on a Monday morning when the show's glittering stars "just happened to drop by" to see the master work, he ran through remembered schtick from his career, to screams of appreciative laughter. But Lahr misunderstood the laughter, felt they were laughing At Him, and finally in a rage turned and snarled "Yeah, laugh. Ge-head and laugh, but God Damn It, That's Funny!"
Comedy workmen don't laugh at jokes. They appreciate them. A thoughtful pause and a nodded "that's good" is their equivalent of rolling in hysterics across the floor. In order to prepare people for this comedy-writing team's antics, playwright Neil Simon cast himself as narrator-explainer, Lucas. Smiling, slender, boyish John Schnatterly starts each of the three scenes (and ends the play) with a setting of scene and sketched-in background. He's youngest and newest on the team, elbowed into the background by bigger, weirder egos, straight-player, appreciator, fan.
His first encounter is with Paul Campbell (Milt) --- a veteran whose personality is practically part of the architecture of Eliot Hall by now. Milt is off-hand serious and must continually remind the neophyte "Nothing I say is Ever true" --- which lends added, subtle weight to moments later in the play when he does, though jokingly, admit to marital chaos.
The next element through Neil Simon's door is Eric Cooper (Val) with a Russian immigrant's exploitable accent that he and Milt spar over. Part of the play's motor is the competition of these professionals for one another's grudging admiration, and their fierce willingness to use themselves to comic purpose.
Brian Scally, with the map of Ireland on his face, is pugnaciously insistent that his real career lies in writing screen-plays, not merely making jokes. He's the one who declares head-to-head funniest-names contests and endless Jewish-Irish sparring contests.
For contrast, Andy Engleward's Kenny, tall and angular in his charcoal suit, is the most practical of the group. He's the one bringing the news that network bigwigs have a horror of their inventive freedom and exploding budgets. The horn-rimmed glasses, the flatter line-readings, the tendency to lecture all serve to remind everyone, characters and audience, that some real-life problems simmer under the comic chaos. Even though the job is to be funny, it's sometimes hard to be funny when you expect any minute to be fired.
Phyllis Walters brings another element of the outside world in, reminding these furiously frivolous funnymen that Senator Joe McCarthy's blacklist of alleged communists further terrifies the network moneymen --- and offers them a club that can enforce conformity. Her later complaint is that her continual participation in their "he-man fuck-speak" has compromised her femininity.
Throughout this slowly zany building of a comedy pressure-cooker, Director John Quinn has made certain each character gets both its time center-stage and its interaction within the whole. Along with that, there is a carefully structured preparation for the entrance of the two top-bananas of this pantheon: Brad Walters as the always-late hypochondriac Ira --- scene-stealer extraordinaire --- and Bill Harrington as the Sid Caesar likealook Max Prince.
Considering all that goes before, Max must flatten all his competing writers with his quirks, his bombast, his out-of-it emotional extremes, and the fact that at every second he is the energetic center of everyone's attention. Max, unlike his writers, is a performer. Harrington's performance is a luscious cherry topping this deliciously complicated comedy sundae.
After the act-break, the center of the second act is a rough run-through of a comedy routine --- a display of the work these workmen turn out. And like any serious theatrical workers, they are never finished, never satisfied, ready to scrap what works for what might work better. In that sense Neil Simon has structured this very funny play as an illustrated lecture on how comedy gets made and what kinds of warped personalities it takes to get that job done.
But in a slightly more elegiac final scene, he does two additional things. First, he gives Pamela Rogers as Helen, the dutiful secretarial flunky, a moment in the center of this maelstrom rather than its fringe. She envies the team, longs to join it, and --- almost as a surrogate for audience members --- takes her shot at a drunken Christmas party and, of course, bombs. "So you think it's easy, being funny, huh?" Simon seems to be saying. Yeah, maybe for a moment, or even an evening --- but doing it every day of every week is a whole different ballgame. (Remember Bert Lahr?)
This final scene is very subtly different. There's a little more honest truth peeking out through the froth in everyone's character. Schnatterly explains that the antsy networkers cut thirty minutes, and the one-hour format destroyed the show's rhythms and constricted its breathing-room. Still winning awards, the show was headed toward cancellation, and Max admits he's read the writing on the wall. The important point here, though, is that as a comedian and a performer, Max must be honest about all this and about his genuine love for his writers, by being very pointedly, poignantly funny. And, as the cast who enter stage-right walk through the door stage-left, they walk out of their lives and into history.
I remember "Your Show of Shows" --- Bambi Lynn and Rod Alexander, Imogen Coca, gibberish-parodies of foreign films --- all of it. There are two mime routines I can still quote, "verbatim." In a small way, it made me what I am, and I'm certain I'm not alone. So maybe I'm a special audience. But, whatever their age, I think anyone who sees The Footlight Club production of "Laughter on the 23rd Floor" will love it, and learn a little in the bargain. I think I did.