If you put the word "laughter" in a play title, you'd better deliver. Although Neil Simon has exhibited a serious streak in some of his recent work, his "Laughter on the 23rd Floor" definitely delivers the yuks.
In another respect, however, the comedy -- currently at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre -- isn't as much a departure as it is part four of the playwright's autobiographical trilogy (who's counting?).
Part three, "Broadway Bound," ended with Simon's alter ego getting a job as a comedy writer. "Laughter" begins with another Simon clone (Matthew Arkin) informing us that he has been hired on a trial contract as a writer for "The Max Prince Show." This is a stand-in for Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows," where Simon went to work in 1953, joining a writing team that included Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, Carl Reiner, Mel Tolkin, Selma Diamond and Lucille Kallen, among others.
In the course of the play, two pronouncements are made that characterize everything we see in that 23rd-floor office. The first comes from the Tolkin character, a Russian immigrant here called Val. "A little aggression is good for writers. All humor is based on hostility," says Val, played by Michael Countryman with a sense of dignity as strong as his borscht-flavored accent.
Indeed, sparks fly between several of the wisecracking writers soon after they enter the room. Milt -- a composite character who receives one of the production's funniest portrayals from a Groucho Marx-like Lewis J. Stadlen -- harangues Val about his accent. That's nothing compared to the incendiary relationship between the staff's token gentile, Brian (given a comically low-key portrayal by rubber-faced J.K. Simmons) and the chronically tardy, hypochondriac Mel Brooks character, Ira, played by a blustery Alan Blumenfeld.
Their initial flare-up, which culminates in Ira's tossing their shoes out the window, typifies the show's second telling hTC pronouncement. "We're children. We have no life. This room is our life," Milt says near the end of the play.
These children also make up a kind of family, with Max Prince as their father. Howard Hesseman, who plays Max, was suffering from the flu on opening night. This may explain why some of the edge was missing from his character's anger, which is so intense it drives him to punch holes in the wall.
Hesseman fares better when it comes to depicting Max's paranoia, disorientation and exhaustion. His downturned basset-hound expression appears to extend all the way to his toes. And he does a humorous job enacting the sketches he and his writers create, whether playing a pigeon-splattered Statue of Liberty or Julius Caesar as portrayed by Marlon Brando ("Oh, Brudus, Brudus, my brudder").
Director Jerry Zaks' speedy pacing contributes significantly to the laugh quotient, though occasionally he has the cast strike poses that look artificial. With the exception of Anthony Cummings' lackluster portrayal of the show's grown-up whiz-kid writer, the cast's spirit of fun leaps over the footlights. And, despite having to deliver a heavy-handed feminist speech in the second act, Alison Martin deserves particular mention for conveying a distinct sense of the period -- as well as the keen timing it must have taken for a woman to hold her own in this pack of crude-talking, egotistical male writers.
A few words on that crude language. Simon acknowledges the profanity at several points in the play, but some audience members may still find it offensive. That's why it wasn't allowed on TV in the 1950s, and still isn't today.
Besides the autobiographical element, "Laughter on the 23rd Floor" has something else in common with Simon's trilogy. Like those plays, which dealt with various familial crises as well as World War II, "Laughter" also makes a stab at seriousness.
Though the immediate crisis facing the characters is that the network wants to cut a half-hour from Max's show, a bigger crisis looms -- the McCarthy hearings. But despite repeated references to the hearings, they never seem like a real threat. By the time McCarthy is mentioned at the end of the play, he's become an afterthought.
Simon has proven adept at blending comedy and pathos, but that's not the way it works this time around. "Laughter on the 23rd Floor" is primarily a Valentine to the happy, simpler, early days of television. If those days weren't always so happy and simple, well, you'll barely notice it here.
"Laughter on the 23rd Floor"
Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, Hopkins Plaza
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, with matinees at 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, and 3 p.m. Sundays. Audio-described performances 2 p.m. tomorrow and 8 p.m. March 7; sign-interpreted performances 8 p.m. March 8 and 2 p.m. March 11. Through March 19
Call: (410) 625-1400; TDD: (410) 625-1407