"Laughter on the 23rd Floor" is Neil Simon's way of rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar's--paying tribute to the man, Sid Caesar, who took the 26-year-old Simon into the writers' room of his historic TV variety program, "Your Show of Shows." Simon lovingly, and at times acerbically, remembers that time, while also delivering a valentine to comedy itself.
Alas, Simon's 1993 play is both more and less than it appears. Its glib surface belies its deeper meanings, even as it glosses over them. It was little more than a joke fest--and one with a high strikeout average, at that--when it reached Southern California in 1995 as an Ahmanson-at-the-Doolittle presentation.
It is both funnier and wiser at the Laguna Playhouse. Not only does director Andrew Barnicle draw out both the light and the dark, but he also uses them to shade one another, throwing the material into brilliant relief.
The story unfolds in 1953 in the New York City writers' room of "The Max Prince Show." Simon's alter ego is a quiet, watch-from-the-sidelines young writer named Lucas Brickman, who narrates the goings-on.
Each act begins with a sort of entrance parade of the writers, who do a comic turn and then settle into the action. The greatest weakness in Simon's script is that these key figures--stand-ins for some of the greatest comedy writers of the day--are little more than shtick figures: the kvetching hypochondriac, the Russian immigrant who mangles words, etc.
The most fully fleshed-in character, fortunately, is Max Prince himself (i.e., Caesar), a brilliant but tortured man who is as likely to send his fist through a wall as to wrap his arm reassuringly around a writer's shoulders.
Max tries to calm himself with tranquilizer-and-booze cocktails, but not even this potent mixture can blind him to the fact that it's the beginning of the end for his show as network bosses pressure him to dumb it down, and as an anti-intellectual, anti-arts fervor grips Joe McCarthy-dominated Washington.
Such concerns loom larger than ever in the '90s, but, as Simon indicates, humankind has developed an all-powerful defense mechanism. The best way to face fear is to laugh in its face.
One of director Barnicle's most inspired touches is to cast Ron House as the mercurial Max. The co-writer and star of the early-'70s off-Broadway hit "El Grande de Coca-Cola" looks a bit like Caesar, and his speech patterns are deliciously similar. With his jaw clenched with tension and his eyes about to pop out, he's a truly unpredictable, explosive presence--a 110% improvement on the L.A. production's Howard Hesseman.
Michael Kostroff is a master of dead-on dry delivery, which makes his Milt--a funny but insecure guy who tries to boost his machismo with a flashy (but hilariously unflattering) wardrobe--an audience favorite.
Jeff Asch is a scream as Ira, the hypochondriac with the steaming teakettle of a personality. And Kirsten Nelson lends the production much of its heart and soul as the socially aware, boisterously funny sole female on the team.
As Simon's alter ego, Neil Kopplin is the weakest link. That's partly Simon's fault, because the role is bafflingly underwritten. While Kopplin's boyish features and dimpled smile make him an inviting guide through this land of comic Princes and kings, he is frustratingly hesitant, unclear in his intentions.
The design work is first-rate. Don Gruber renders the writers' room in gleaming but cold textures, an intriguing evocation of both the period and the story's mood. Lighting designer Paulie Jenkins sends bright sunlight streaming through blinds while bathing the room in chillier artificial light--setting up a subtle dichotomy that, again, emphasizes mood. And costumer Dwight Richard Odle uses period bold plaids, checks and tweeds to draw out each character's outsize personality.
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* "Laughter on the 23rd Floor," Laguna Playhouse's Moulton Theater, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday, 2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. $18-$35. Ends June 7. (949) 497-2787. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.
Ron House: Max
Neil Kopplin: Lucas
Michael Kostroff: Milt
Jim Doughan: Val
David Kieran: Brian
Alan Goodson: Kenny
Kirsten Nelson: Carol
Jeff Asch: Ira
Sirena Irwin: Helen
A Laguna Playhouse production. Written by Neil Simon. Directed by Andrew Barnicle. Set: Don Gruber. Costumes: Dwight Richard Odle. Lights: Paulie Jenkins. Sound: David Edwards. Stage manager: Nancy Staiger.