Laughter on the 23rd Floor, now playing at Mad Cow Theatre, is a semi-autobiographical play by Neil Simon that hearkens back to the days when he was a neophyte comedy writer for the great funnyman Sid Caesar during TV's so-called Golden Age, the early 1950s. Based on a gaggle of Simon's real-life colleagues – Mel Brooks, Mel Tolkin, Larry Gelbart and other jokesters who toiled on Caesar's Your Show of Shows – Laughter is not one of Simon's more deeply probing works. His proxy in the play, Lucas (nicely played by Connor Marsico), is mostly an observer who watches from the sidelines, periodically commenting on the more seasoned writers with whom Simon had the luck to associate while learning the craft that would make him one of America's most celebrated playwrights.
Laughter portrays a time when the new art form of television comedy was a New York-based cottage trade, largely peopled by Jewish jesters and scribes who had an edgy, ethnic, urban sensitivity that was not always in sync with the less sophisticated tastes of the American heartland – people who were only just beginning to trade in their radios for TV sets. The plot of Laughter, thin as it is, plays upon this dichotomy, as the Caesar character (here going by "Max Prince") continually has to duel with the network brass who want him to dumb down his high-class buffoonery in order to uptick the Midwest ratings. The play is mostly a series of comic bits and one-liners.
That said, director David Russell (who for years piloted Orlando's best-known improv troupe, SAK Comedy Lab) has enlisted the efforts of some of the area's funniest actors in a fast-moving and enjoyable spree with mere seconds between punch lines. Philip Nolen stars as Max in a tightly wound performance of comic mayhem, alternately plotting revenge against the network execs and exploding at anyone who dares to question his authority as the reigning king of comedy. Steve Purnick, as Milt, has most of the good ripostes. You can almost hear the rimshot – ba-dum-bum – after each put-down or bon mot. In fact, he actually says "ba-dum-bum" himself most of the time, just in case you didn't notice him being funny. The rest of the cast – Tim Williams as Val, Brandon Roberts as Brian, David Almeida as Kenny, Glenn Gover as Ira, Heather Leonardi as Carol and Robyn Pedretti Kelly as Helen – give as good as they get from one another, and from Max, who often shows his love by bullying, insulting and otherwise abusing the very writers upon whose talents he depends for the maintenance of his exalted state.
LAUGHTER ON THE 23RD FLOOR
through Feb. 17
Mad Cow Theatre
54 W. Church St.