By PAM HARBAUGH
The humanity behind the humor echoes in MCT’s funny and affectionate production of Neil Simon’s “Laughter on the 23rd Floor.”
That’s as it should be. For propelling the jokes, the comic bits and zany characters is the pathos of fighting the good fight while you feel like you’re losing. Indeed, under Peg Girard’s direction, this deeper essence of Simon’s semi-autobiographical comedy resonates while it still makes you laugh out loud.
The storyline here concerns the writers for the hit 1950s fictional television variety show, “The Max Prince Show.” Simon famously bases this comedy on the four years (1950 to 1954) he worked as a writer for Sid Caesar’s legendary TV hit, “Your Show of Shows.” Other writers on that show were Danny Simon, Mel Brooks, Mel Tolkin and a prolific writer who rather disappeared into obscurity, Lucille Kallen. Other writers, including Larry Gelbart worked later for “Caesar’s Hour” while Woody Allen worked on following Sid Caesar specials. (Sources: IMDB.com and the Archive of American Television at emmytvlegend.org.)
But Simon puts all these rich characters at play in “Laughter,” the messy setting where big personalities clash and classic bits are conceived for the so-called Golden Age of Television. Where ba-dum-bum bravado meets a serious moment and comic one-upmanship rules.
The play begins rather at the end of Max Prince’s reign. Network executives want to shorten his show, toady to the whim of communist hunter Sen. Joseph McCarthy and simply shovel out the you-know-what to their audiences. They believe Max Prince and his writers are just too witty, cultured and topical for an American public that doesn’t want to think. Yes, Virginia, there are some universal parallels.
The play’s structure revolves around a new writer, Lucas, portrayed here by MCT newcomer Logan Harrington. Mr. Harrington sweetens the stage with his portrayal of this wide-eyed innocent thrown into a raucous environment with a wide assortment of anxiety-ridden characters.
Pete Jacobsen brings out the worry-wort in funny dressing Milt. Michael Thompson disappears into his role of frantic Val, the Russian immigrant and head writer who goes nuts trying to control his writers.
As follicle-challenged and Hollywood writer wannabe Brian, David Hill has the biggest sight gags. Steve Costner finds the sensible center to funny Kenny. Becky-Behl Hill brings the Rose Marie (as is the “Dick Van Dyke Show”) sass in her portrayal of Carol.
Mark Blackledge comes close to stealing the show in his energetic, funny and over the top portrayal of, well, over-the-top Ira, the hypochondriac funny man who oozes comedy. Right alongside him in her own scene-stealing prowess is fetching brunette Holly McFarland as the slightly ditzy secretary, Helen.
Terrence Girard commands as Max Prince, the king of this comedy. His nuanced, funny delivery of lines and building anger over Joseph McCarthy, TV censors and nitwit network executives explodes on stage into some really very funny bits.
Still, there is the poignancy, with which this production affectionately rewards its audience.
The heartbreaking appeal about Sid Caesar is, that through all the humor, double takes, broad comic characterizations, he had such a sadness about him, as if he were an everyman smiling through the tears. In reality, Caesar (who, by the way, studied clarinet and saxophone at The Juilliard School) fought back demons with pills and booze.
In “Laughter,” you see this wise king considering the human condition…considering the societal impact of the dumbing down of America, of corporate greed and of injustice. While Max laps up broad, nutty fun, he also wants to use comedy as a way of telling his audience to wake up and take notice.
Yeah, it’s like gallows humor for the masses: “They got a wait list to be on the black list.” Ba-dum-bum. “All humor comes out of hostility./Absolutely, that’s why World War II was so funny.” Ba-dum-bum.
The humor comes fast and furious in “Laughter on the 23rd Floor.” (Fortunately, on opening night, the tired audience was quiet enough for me to hear everything and laugh myself silly…I felt as if I were alone at a banquet.)
Energy, wit, great timing and exquisite comic takes fill this production. Making it better, this comic meal sticks to the ribs. It’s a delectable way to begin MCT’s 62nd season.
Photo by Jenny Haaff shows Mark Blackledge and David Hill.
Artistic crew includes scenic designer Alfie Silva, technical director and lighting desiger Alan Selby and sound designer Wendy Reader.
Watch the video of cast and crew following opening night performance by clicking here.
SIDE O’ GRITS: “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” performs 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Sept. 8 at Melbourne Civic Theatre, 817 E. Strawbridge Ave., Melbourne. Tickets are $25 general, $23 senior. A $2 handling fee applies to credit card purchases. Call 321-723-6935 or visit www.mymct.org.