LAUGHTER ON THE 23RD FLOOR, Briar Street Theatre. Neil Simon’s 1993 play takes place in the skyscraper office of a TV comedy series, where any subject is ripe for a joke–except communism. It’s 1953, and as one character says, there’s “a wait list to get on the blacklist.” The witch-hunting antics of Senator Joseph McCarthy have engendered too much anger and paranoia among the creators of NBC’s weekly Max Prince Show to encourage much joking, so Lucas, Ira, Kenny, Val, Carol, Milt, and Brian–Simon’s surrogates for himself, Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, Mel Tolkin, Selma Diamond, and other young writers for Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows–train their satiric sights on outrageous but irrelevant movie parodies and sexist domestic-squabble sketches. Meanwhile the Caesarean Max Prince tries to stall network honchos who want to trim his budget, his running time, and his style of humor, deemed too urban and Jewish for increasingly suburban America.
Flavored with the playwright’s authentic if self-serving I-was-there perspective, Laughter on the 23rd Floor feels like the old Caesar show: it’s a collage of sometimes hilarious, sometimes silly vignettes whose humor stems more from extravagantly eccentric performances than the actual quality of the material. Though he mines lots of laughs from the outlandishly broad battles that cigar-chomping, pill-popping, manic-depressive Max wages with the world around him, Simon shies away from the solid dramatic conflict that could lead to credible character development and a satisfying structure. But he offers plenty of jokes–dialect jokes and rabbi jokes and Nazi jokes and Irish jokes and onion-roll jokes and gynecologist jokes–delivered in classic Yiddish-inflected Caesar style by a cadre of deftly etched crazies.
Ron Orbach headlines director Michael Leavitt’s well-cast production, playing Max as a cross between Jackie Gleason and Harvey Fierstein–a brilliant, semilovable neurotic who embellishes his over-the-top diatribes with obscure historical references and sudden fists through the wall. Effective support comes from Matt De Caro, Jerry Saslow, William Brown, Rose Abdoo, William Dick, Mike Houlihan, and Peter Regis-Civetta as the writers who transfer their own quirks to their small-screen creations. The result is often very funny, but it feels like hackwork compared to Lost in Yonkers, Broadway Bound, or even The Odd Couple.