Big laughs, from the early days of TV at Laurel Mill Playhouse
By Patti Restivo
Mar 01, 2017 at 6:10 AM
The Laurel Mill Playhouse's side-splitting production of Neil Simon's "Laughter on the 23rd Floor" flashes back to the first golden age of television, 1947–1960, when ABC, CBS and NBC ruled broadcasting.
Simon drew inspiration for his "Laughter" from his own experience as a novice writer for Sid Caesar's live television series, "Your Show of Shows" in the 1950s.
The Emmy-nominated play opened on Broadway in 1993,running until August the following year, and then briefly opened at the Queen's Theatre on the West End of London in 1996.
Simon's 2001 screenplay adaptation, with Nathan Lane and Saul Rubinek, was nominated for a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Made for Television Movie.
Directed here by Playhouse newcomer John D'Amato and produced by Maureen Rogers, of Laurel, the story lands on the 23rd floor of a Manhattan office building in 1953.
At first glance, the set (designed by D'Amato, Mark T. Allen and cast and crew) appears unremarkable with shabby white wall flats framing a functional table and chairs.
But a closer look reveals intriguing black and white wall photos of vintage celebrities like Charlie Chaplin, Ernie Kovacs and Lucille Ball, as well as a photo of the real "Your Show of Shows" writing team.
The cluttered writers' room quickly proves fitting for the craziness to come, as do the well-coordinated, colorful period costumes.
The lights, designed by Bob Frank, rise on Michael Parks as Lucas, the newbie on a team of genius writers for the fictional "Max Prince Show." Prince, played by Jeff Murray, is inspired by Sid Caesar; Lucas represents Simon.
Alone on stage, Lucas confides to the audience that he is working through a trial period, that his future depends on finding a voice for his humor and that "this is what I dreamed of my whole life."
The senior writers are performed by John Dignam as Milt Fields; Joanna Andrus as Kenny Franks; Debra Kidwell as Carol; Tim Evans as Val Slotsky; Bob Herbertson as Brian Doyle; and Win Britt as Ira Stone. All of the senior writer characters are modeled after real talents including Sheldon Keller, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks and Lucille Kallen
Helen, played by Miranda Snyder, is Prince's secretary.
An ongoing battle between CBS execs and Prince over the show's content serves as the primary plot, but storylines play second fiddle to the lovely sketch comedies Simon has crafted into his script.
References to the Cold War, feminist issues and tensions between ethnicities simmer briefly — Joseph McCarthy and Ed Morrow are mentioned — but, by Act 2, the social and political undercurrents (still relevant today) give way to unfettered comedy.
And D'Amato's cast steps up to every opportunity to notch up the lunacy.
Parks as Lucas shifts easily between narrating and retreating behind the fourth wall. Watching his wit and confidence grow creates charming feel-good moments.
Andrus and Kidwell as Kenny and Carol are hardly overshadowed female writers who never miss a beat in their timing or presence.
In her role as Kenny, Andrus consistently delivers a strong, decisive persona that anchors Max and the team through crises.
Kidwell as Carol also shines with a pithy potty mouth that adds comic incongruity to the testosterone in the room.
Evans as Val makes a fine head writer; his Russian accent and hysterical variations enunciating the f-bomb always entertain. And Herbertson as Doyle, a quick-witted Irishman, drives the audience to stitches with meticulously delivered zingers.
Snyder balances a cheerful disposition in her supporting role as Helen, adding just the right touch of ditz to the mix. The delicate chemistry she and Dignam create when he tries to hit on her takes the sting out of a potential office sexual harassment situation.
And Dignam's timing and interpretation of the wise acre Fields, who is likely hiding a broken heart, is near flawless.
Murray as the lead, Max Prince, is not only "not afraid of walnuts," he couldn't be funnier nor more suited visually to his role. Ditto for Britt as Ira Stone; both men achieve standout performances by the sheer energy and passion they bring to well-rehearsed performances.
D'Amato has done a stellar job of casting and directing a delightful production. Tech cues went off without a hitch under the guidance of stage manager Kathy McCrory.
Most impressive is that every actor delivers a genuine and engaging character, regardless of how broad or grounded the dialogue is written. We love them all.
"Laughter on the 23rd Floor" continues weekends through March 12, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m., at Laurel Mill Playhouse, 508 Main St. General admission is $20. Students ages 16-18, active duty military and seniors 65 and over pay $15. Buy tickets online at laurelmillplayhouse.org.