‘Laughter’ and Four-Letter Words From Neil Simon


Neil Simon’s next (non-musical) comedy, slated to open at the Doolittle Theatre in Hollywood next fall, will be his most foul-mouthed play yet.

“It’ll have language I’ve never used before,” said Simon. “I’ve got to use a lot of four-letter words. I hope I don’t go overboard.”

The play, “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” is set backstage at “The Max Prince Show,” a fictional TV comedy series in Manhattan in the early ‘50s. It’s “not a documentary,” said Simon, but he acknowledged there are resemblances between the Prince show and the Sid Caesar show he worked on as a young writer.


It sounds almost like a continuation of his loosely autobiographical trilogy (“Brighton Beach Memoirs,” “Biloxi Blues” and “Broadway Bound,” which ended with the young narrator beginning a writing job with Phil Silvers), except that there isn’t a single B in the title. Is there a character based on Simon himself in “Laughter”?

“A little,” replied Simon. “But much like the other (plays), I’m not using the names.”

“Laughter” will mark a return to a former Simon practice of introducing his plays under Center Theatre Group auspices. Simon liked the CTG’s 2,071-seat Ahmanson Theatre, where five of his shows made their debuts, for one reason only: “We made so much money it could help pay off the production costs.” But otherwise he feels it’s too big and he swore off Los Angeles as a site for premieres several years ago. Since then, however, the Ahmanson subscription season moved to the Doolittle, and Simon finds the smaller theater much more hospitable.

Furthermore, he believes that “this play has a background that a lot of people in this area are familiar with.” That consideration didn’t matter so much with his last three plays, which tried out in North Carolina. According to Simon, a woman in the audience there once complained to him that one of his characters was wearing too short a skirt.

DISHARMONY: A controversy over what might become a new mid-sized theater in Hollywood is coming to a head.

Officials of Harmony Gold, a TV production company, want to convert the auditorium of their building on Sunset five blocks east of Fairfax--formerly known as Preview House, a TV research facility--into a 400-seat “legit” theater. But some of the neighbors have mounted intense opposition to the required zoning change, primarily citing parking and traffic problems.

Last December, the city Planning Commission approved the zoning change but restricted use to stage presentations only. Harmony Gold officials, who say the conversion won’t be financially feasible unless they can present film screenings as well, appealed.

Both sides expect the dispute to hit the City Council’s Planning and Land Use Management committee on Nov. 10. But in the meantime, neighborhood opponents hope to derail the project by convincing the committee, plus the recently redistricted area’s own Councilman John Ferraro, to oppose it.

Harmony Gold has responded with its own campaign. Individually signed form letters, many of them from prominent theater workers, were sent last week to Ferraro and to the area’s former Councilman Michael Woo, who sides with the protesting neighbors. The Times also received more than 300 such letters.

Because it’s Ferraro’s district, he may have the most influence on the final decision, and “he wants to see the parking problem resolved before he gives a seal of approval,” said a Ferraro spokeswoman. “He’s still open-minded.”

Neighborhood opponents went so far as to videotape the traffic congestion caused by a recent meeting of the Songwriters Guild at the building.

“This isn’t the theater district,” said Valorie Keegan of the Spalding Square Neighborhood Assn. She said the city should encourage the growth of theater in the non-residential district near Hollywood and Vine instead of in her neighborhood. She added that she was concerned about what might happen if Harmony Gold leaves after a zoning change. “It could be a Turkish bath,” she said.

Harmony Gold is willing to accept a zoning change that would prohibit specific future uses such as an adult movie house, responded Robert Norton, the company’s executive vice president. And if a valet parking company worked there permanently, it would “work out the kinks” that cause the traffic congestion, he added. He also cited three neighbors who, he said, support the zoning change.