Neil Simon's "Laughter on the 23rd Floor" is ostensibly a play about what it was like to write comedy in television's golden age, the era before American humor was suburbanized.
Simon, of course, was a writer for "Your Show of Shows" in the early '50s, along with Woody Allen, Mel Brooks and Larry Gelbart. But the characters he has written bear virtually no relation to what we know of the actual players.
The play has a narrator, Lucas, a clean-cut young man probably very much like Simon must have been 40-odd years ago, who reminisces about the early years of his career. The play also alludes to the atmosphere of McCarthyism that enveloped early television. But its not really a play of recollection. It would be more accurate to say "Laughter" is a play about, well, laughter.
Its characters and its performance style are all outsize, that is to say, emanations of a world where comedy was wilder, brasher, spicier than what succeeded it, the world, Lucas points out, of the Cleavers and "Father Knows Best."
It begins, for example, with a totally absurd monologue by one of the comedy writers about his drive into Manhattan. Almost everything about his speech is preposterous, but the way Lewis Stadlen delivers it - cloaking an almost maniacal personality in the garb of imperturbability - makes it hilarious despite its flouting of common sense.
Similarly, one of the writers is wildly hypochondriacal. As played by Ron Orbach, he careens about the stage like a balloon in the Macy's parade, inflated almost to the point of exploding, bobbing jerkily through the air because his handlers are inexperienced. Mainly what he tells us is grim medical information, but he does so with such uncontrolled hysteria that it is howlingly funny.
Most marvelous is Nathan Lane, who plays the comedian for whom the writers work. Lane looks as if he had been redesigned by Chester Gould. His hair glistens with Brylcreem. (Does anyone remember Brylcreem?) His forehead seems to have been stretched to give his agile eyebrows more room to play. His expression is one of almost constant anguish. He is at his best in a sketch very reminiscent of "Your Show of Shows," where he imitates Marlon Brando as Caesar.
But the content is almost beside the point. When you have a stage full of such expert actors, superbly directed by Jerry Zaks, even a farfetched character played by Mark Linn-Baker, a Russian who is the head writer, seems plausible and funny. (How can someone with broken English be the head writer? How did this Russian get to the U.S.? How could he wield such power in a network during the McCarthy years?)
"Laughter" may not say much about the period or even what this early experience meant to Simon, but as a demonstration of the art of comic acting, it's sensational.
As people so often apologetically say after a prized anecdote has failed to soar: "Well, you had to be there!" But, of course, we weren't. And that is the problem with Neil Simon's new comedy, "Laughter on the 23rd Floor," which opened last night at the Richard Rodgers Theater.
In most of his recent plays, Simon has been nothing if not reminiscent and auto-biographical. He has taken us happily with him while he was lost in Yonkers, growing up in Brighton Beach, mustered in Biloxi and then Broadway-bound.
In "Laughter on the 23rd Floor," he is Broadway-arrived - well not quite Broadway, but 57th Street nearby. It'll do - until he really starts to blow his own horn and write plays that will make him rich and famous.
Right now he has landed a job as a member of the script-writing team for Sid Caesar - beg pardon, Simon's name and persona for the purpose of this play is Lucas, and it's not Sid Caesar, it's Nathan Lane well...hell, it gets confusing...it's not really Nathan Lane, it's Max Prince as played by Nathan Lane, who, understandably, acts as though he's playing Sid Caesar.
For years I seem to have defended Simon against people who have claimed that his plays are merely a succession of one-liners. But here - instead of writing a play - he really is offering a succession of one-liners, a few hilarious, but most smart-alecky and trivial.
At best it is a bit more than that - think of it as a group portrait. But it is a portrait that is scarcely more recognizable (or dramatically viable) than one of Napoleon and his Generals. Yes, I think I see a character perhaps based on Mel Brooks, another perhaps on Larry Gelbart. The rest mean nothing to me.
A show is canceled. A star stumbles into alcoholism. And that is a play! It's scarcely a revue skit. There is, I admit, inconclusive talk of Sen. Joseph McCarthy; was this meant to suggest dramatic conflict?
Jerry Zaks has directed a very strong cast with commendable suspension of disbelief, and the acting - in its particular showbiz jokey style - proves exceptional.
Lane himself, battered, befuddled, lovable, does beautifully as the star. Lewis J. Stadlen offers to perfection his familiar Groucho Marx shtick - note the little, almost modest, Marxist smirk of self-satisfaction every time he gets off a joke.
I admired Ron Orbach, who is beautifully bearlike and childish, as Ira, the Mel Brooks type, while Mark Linn-Baker provides a funny accent with eyebrows as a Russian emigre chiefwriter. In other roles John Slattery (is he meant to be Gelbart?), J.K. Simmons and Randy Graff all perform nicely.
And, today's Broadway being what it is, I have no doubt that this comedy of mannerisms will perform nicely as well. It's not bad, it's not good: some of the largely predictable lines are modestly funny. It will also probably get better reviews - and do better at the box-office - than did Simon's last effort, the underestimated "Jake's Women."
But that doesn't make it a better play - not by a country mile.
So it wasn't Paris in the 20's. But midtown Manhattan in the 50's produced its own cockamamie earthquake in American letters. Creating sketches for "Your Show of Shows" and then "Caesar's Hour," a band of young, mostly Jewish writers forged a comic style that dominated the new medium of television, as well as Broadway and the movies, for decades. If you want to find the ur-texts of "The Producers" and "Blazing Saddles," of "Sleeper" and "Annie Hall," of "All in the Family" and "M*A*S*H" and "Saturday Night Live," check out the old kinescopes of Sid Caesar cavorting with Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner and Howard Morris on those Saturday nights 40 years ago.
Of all the illustrious "Show of Shows" alumni, none has had a longer run at the top of American comedy than Neil Simon. "Laughter on the 23d Floor," Mr. Simon's new play at the Richard Rodgers Theater, is his memoir of what went on in the writers' room back when Caesar was king. (Or prince, since Max Prince is the name of Mr. Simon's Caesar stand-in.) Given so funny a playwright and subject, not to mention the lofty talents of the evening's star, Nathan Lane, and director, Jerry Zaks, a theatergoer cannot be blamed for arriving at "Laughter on the 23d Floor" with high expectations. Lower them, and you may have a better time.
This is an amiable, noisy, frenetically staged show with a scattering of big laughs and likable performances, starting with Mr. Lane's florid-faced portrait of the volcanic Max. When the gags miss -- and there is a higher strikeout rate than is typical for Mr. Simon at full tilt -- the haphazardly constructed play has little else to fall back on, its pro forma plot, grave intimations of the blacklist and nostalgic grace notes notwithstanding. The major characters lack the size and poignancy of those of "The Sunshine Boys"; the large gallery of supporting kibitzers are not as sharp as the poker players in "The Odd Couple." "Laughter on the 23d Floor" is superior Simon entertainment only when compared with its immediate predecessors in the canon, "Jake's Women" and "The Goodbye Girl."
Essentially, the play is a series of can-you-top-this kaffeeklatsches for Max's long-suffering writers, periodically interrupted by the welcome, disruptive appearances of the great, alcoholic, pill-popping man himself. His hair slicked back with brilliantine, his voice a strangled roar, Mr. Lane's Max is as much Jackie Gleason as Sid Caesar. His every entrance is tumultuous, as if he were a Looney Tunes character bursting through a Warner Brothers logo, and his every gesture, from the casual waving of a cigar to the enraged pounding of a wall, is a threat.
In truth, he's a softie. If Max is going to throw a phone, chances are he'll hit himself. (Mr. Lane acknowledges his smashed toes with an exquisite little peal of pain, somewhere in pitch between a baby's cry and a dog whistle.) He is also a force for cultural good. Baiting the corporate powers that be at NBC with a nasty vigor David Letterman would admire, Max stands up for sophisticated, topical humor at the historical turning point when television started chasing its rapidly expanding audience by sinking to the lowest common denominator. In the best scene in "Laughter on the 23d Floor," withheld until late in Act II, Max and his writers rehearse and revise a sketch of the kind that soon would be extinct on network television; in it, Mr. Lane offers a priceless impersonation of Sid Caesar impersonating Marlon Brando interpreting "Julius Caesar" by way of Stanley Kowalski.
When Max is offstage, the writers, each with a single shtick, bicker in the familiar manner of Morey Amsterdam and Rose Marie, who played the fictionalized Caesar writers on "The Dick Van Dyke Show," Carl Reiner's classic television series a clef about the "Show of Shows" years. The funniest of the group are Milt, an aggressive insult artist played by Lewis J. Stadlen with his usual touch of Groucho, and Ron Orbach, a big, fleshy pudding of a man with the name of Ira and the manic obsessiveness of Mel Brooks. Ira is a serious hypochondriac, and some of the play's most riotous bits arrive when a hyperventilating Mr. Orbach acts out his imagined symptoms of a stroke (Act I) and a brain tumor (Act II).
Too many other gags are far below Mr. Simon's station. Let someone describe Max as paranoid, and along comes the retort: "No, he's not. He just thinks everyone's against him." Let one writer refer to "a card-carrying Communist," and another lamely quips, "Even if he was a Communist, why would he have cards printed up?" There are so many one-liners, only a couple of them amusing, about a white suit Milt wears in Act II that the suit threatens to become the play's protagonist. And while it is refreshing to hear Mr. Simon present his writers' humor (and Yiddish isms) unbowdlerized, the many toilet jokes would hardly impress the hard-core connoisseurs at a Friars roast.
Mr. Zaks's response to the comic shortfall is to try to bludgeon the audience into laughing by keeping the action fast, furious and loud. You can't blame him; Mr. Simon does not even throw him an Act I curtain line to send the audience happily into intermission. So relentlessly busy is the staging that it almost succeeds in warding off scrutiny of Tony Walton's uncharacteristically ugly set, a realistic rendition of a filthy, monochromatic skyscraper office of yesteryear. But the actors with the weakest of the one-note turns -- J. K. Simmons (the house gentile), John Slattery (a Dick Van Dyke straight arrow), and Randy Graff and Bitty Schram (as the dead-on-arrival female stereotypes) -- only occasionally upstage the scenery. One charming exception is Mark Linn-Baker, who played a rookie Caesar writer in the film "My Favorite Year," and here graduates to the role of head writer, a nervous Russian emigre and all-purpose straight man.
The strangest character by far is the one intended to speak for the playwright himself, a novice writer named Lucas, played by Stephen Mailer. Like Eugene in Mr. Simon's autobiographical Brighton Beach trilogy, Lucas addresses the audience, but his mostly humorless narration supplies only the plot information the author is too lazy to dramatize, not pointed observations or introspective feelings. Having announced early on that his young alter ego is shy, the playwright leans on that trait as an excuse to avoid revealing anything else about him, just as he also makes no effort to explore why Max Prince has, as one line puts it, "so much anger in him, so much pain."
It's as if Mr. Simon, the ultimate inside witness to the history of American show-biz comedy in our time, were standing outside his own story looking in. The tone is so impersonal and mechanical that "Laughter on the 23d Floor," for all its incidental amusements, does not seem to recreate the golden age of television so much as tune it in by remote control.
Neil Simon has spent most of the last decade demonstrating -- and, with "Broadway Bound" and "Lost in Yonkers," proving pretty well beyond question -- that he has the heart of a serious playwright as well as the soul of a joke-meister. With "Laughter on the 23rd Floor," his 28th show since "Come Blow Your Horn" in 1961, Simon returns to both an earlier time and an earlier form. Though it certainly has heart, it's the funniest comedy on Broadway in years and it's likely to remain the funniest comedy on Broadway for years.
With "Laughter," the playwright continues to mine his own past for material, returning here to the early 1950s and his days as a young writer for Sid Caesar and a company of jokesters on "Your Show of Shows" that included Carl Reiner, Imogene Coca, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Mel Tolkin and Larry Gelbart. The anonymous office overlooking 57th Street in Manhattan where they worked was equal parts pressure cooker, sanctuary and war zone; these were, after all, big talents and bigger egos, each nonetheless one very small-seeming step away from nervous breakdown.
Simon recalls with nearly reverential affection a time when the TV audience was small enough and urbane enough to appreciate sketches that sent up everyone from Shakespeare to Stalin, the last days of a golden era for comedy that seemed to die with the national hysteria over Communism embodied by Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
The playwright makes this point clearly in the first act of "Laughter," when Carol (Randy Graff, in a role based on both Lucille Kallen and Selma Diamond) arrives grim-faced with the news that McCarthy has accused no less a national hero than General George C. Marshall of being a Communist. Max Prince (Nathan Lane, in the Sid Caesar role) responds to this information with a rage that leads him to rip an arm off his Eames chair and punch a hole in the wall.
But if Simon has anything serious in mind, it's quickly subsumed in a battery of yuks that barely lets up for nearly 2 1/2 hours of one-liners, double-takes, sight gags and slow burns, all performed by an incomparable company under the inspired direction of Jerry Zaks, who simply has no peer today in staging comedies.
The McCarthy threat that seems in the first act to run beneath the humor like a dark stream is mostly abandoned in the second, and some will find that hard to forgive. But Max Prince's response -- impotent rage quickly sublimated -- may strike a truer note than many will admit.
In the meantime, there are shows to write, and "Laughter on the 23rd Floor" offers a pretty good view of the hilarious process. Here is the head writer, Val (Mark Linn-Baker, in the Tolkin role, accent and all) and the rest -- Kenny (John Slattery, in the Gelbart role), Ira (Ron Orbach, as the hypochondriacal Brooks), Milt (Lewis J. Stadlin; though it's not clear who he is, he admits early on that "these guys are Tiffany's, I'm wholesale"), Brian (J.K. Simmons as the token Gentile hellbent for Hollywood), and the newcomer Lucas (Stephen Mailer as the author's stand-in and narrator) -- along with Carol, jousting verbally and often physically, jockeying for the boss's admiration. Giggles don't count; nothing less than guffaws will do.
Max Prince orchestrates it all with a kind of paranoid glee as he fights off his own depression and the fogginess that comes from an increasing dependence on tranquilizers and alcohol. Though he bears no physical resemblance to Sid Caesar , Nathan seems born to the part, and his timing and delivery are perfect.
In only one case does the writing fail, though in that instance it fails big. As with virtually every career woman Simon has created, Carol is almost completely humorless; she's a billboard, whether advertising the threat of McCarthy or the (quickly dismissed) suggestion that her colleagues expunge their jokes of anger and ethnicity. Her declaration that she wants to be treated not as a woman but as a writer is a clunky sermon, and Graff, who/can be a fine comic actress, seems muzzled by the material. In the much smaller role of the secretary with ambitions to write, Bitty Schram is far more likable.
Tony Walton's set is nicely nondescript, and Tharon Musser washes it out with just the right fluorescent glare. William Ivey Long's costumes are, as always, character-perfect.
All of this will seem familiar to fans of the film "My Favorite Year," which was based on much the same story (and which also starred Linn-Baker).
But "Laughter on the 23rd Floor" is a love letter from one who was there.
Indeed, the final moments lay on the adulation a bit too heavily, as though this were a lament for a lost art rather than a reverie about a youthful time in which the author had the good luck to get paid for doing what he loved with masters of his trade. Well, it's a nice ending, and it does allow the stitches in the side from all that laughing to finally subside.