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San Francisco by Richard Connema

A Side Splitting Production of Neil Simon's Laughter on the 23rd Floor

Also see Richard's reviews of Valhalla, john & jen and The Long Christmas Ride Home

Laughter on the 23rd Floor
(clockwise from left): Jeffrey Draper, Jesse Sells, Andrew Hurteau, Kalli Jonsson, Anthony Nemirovsky, T. Edward Webster (on the table), Lizzie Calogero (under the table)
Center REPertory Theatre is reviving one of Neil Simon's funniest comedies, Laughter on the 23rd Floor, at the Margaret Lesher Theatre at the Dean Lesher Regional Center in Walnut Creek through June 17. It is a great pleasure to once again see this classic slapstick about a group of comedy writers working for one of the great comedians in television during the early '50s. Time Magazine said it best: "If Broadway ever erects a monument to the patron saint of laughter, Neil Simon would have to be it." This 1993 raucous comedy is the master of one-liners at his best.

I saw the original during the winter of 1994 at the Richard Rodgers Theatre with Nathan Lane playing the comedian Max Prince and a sterling cast of comedy actors that included Mark Linn-Baker, J.K. Simmons, Ron Orbach, Randy Graff and Lewis J. Stadlen. It played for 320 laugh filled performances. I saw it again at the Doolittle Theatre during the spring of 1995 with Howard Hesseman taking over the role of Max.

This comedy is a hilarious behind-the-scenes peek into the most famous comedy writers' room in the golden age of television. Often called "The Harvard of Comedy," the writers' room of Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows churned out comic genius from the minds of Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner and a young future playwright named Neil Simon. I have fond memories of watching the kinescope version of the 90-minute show on Saturday nights. This was the time when the small, urbane audiences appreciated sketches that appealed to sophisticated folks. It was also the time when Senator McCarthy was starting to raise the "red scare" to the American public.

In the play, the comedy writers come in every day to their office in a building overlooking 57th Street in Manhattan. All have super egos, but every one of them is a talented joke writer. It is like a war zone as the writers are at constant battle with each other to make the perfect 90-minute NBC show. All of this is headed by the neurotic Max Prince who loves pills and booze. The place is a pressure cooker when Max arrives each morning to get storylines and zingers from the group.

Laughter on the 23rd Floor is not all fun and games; there is a serious side to this two-act play since Max hates what Senator McCarthy is doing to the industry and how NBC is cow towing to the senator from Wisconsin. Max goes into furious rages when he hears McCarthy is calling the national hero, General George C. Marshall, a "red." He is also enraged that NBC wants to cut the show down to one hour and get away from highly stylish sketches since the network is now trying to appeal to younger viewers in less sophisticated markets. Series like Father Knows Best are becoming more and more popular with middle America.

Max Prince is played brilliantly by Andrew Hurteau (Nero, The Rules of Charity, Summertime at the Magic), who goes completely over the top. He is paranoid about who depends on tranquilizers and booze, and he plays the role like Nathan Lane did in the original production. His rages are terrifying, both to the writers and the audience. He could be a second Nathan Lane in appearance and manner.

Mark Farrell (co-winner of the SFBATCC award for Best Musical Actor last year and Around the World in 80 Days at the Center Rep) plays Milt who has a zinger a minute and says "the other guys in the room are Tiffany's, I'm wholesale." He is a clear standout who brings forth natural laughs each time he opens his mouth.

T. Edward Webster (The Rivals, Time of Your Life at ACT and The Mystery Plays at SF Playhouse) is perfect as the hypochondriac who has had every ailment in the book. He represents a combination of Woody Allen and Mel Brooks in this production. Head writer Val is played wonderfully by Anthony Nemirovsky (Nicholas Nickleby) with a perfect Russian accent. He gives a noticeable performance as the frustrated head writer trying to get work done.

Jeffrey Draper (Anna Christie, Picasso at the Lapin Agile) is excellent as Kenny (who probably represents Larry Gelbart in the group) as the only one who seems serious about the writing of zingers for the great comic. Kalli Jonsson (Arsenic and Old Lace at the Center Rep), as the lone gentile who is going to Hollywood, is outstanding in the role (he is possibly Norman Lear who went to Hollywood for his fame). Jesse Sells (2006 graduate receiving his B.A. in Drama from San Francisco State University) plays Lucas the narrator and the youngest member of the comedy very well (he represents Neil Simon in the group).

Laughter's two female roles are played by Danielle Levin (The Women, Becoming Memories at the Center Rep) is the only female writer but she holds her own with the male members of the group with some very good zingers. Lizzie Calogero (Crucifixion at the NCTC) shines as the secretary in the second act when she tries to present a joke involving a Chinese Jew.

John Lacovelli has designed the same type set that appeared on the Richard Rogers and Doolittle stages. It is a nondescript office set where the jokers sit around a table and chairs, throwing out one liners to each other. Cassandra Carpenter's costumes are character perfect. Scott Denison's lighting gives out that fluorescent feeling of an office. Barbara Damashek (winner of the SFBATCC award for Best Director of a Musical last year) does a bang-up job in directing this fast-paced comedy. The timing is perfect among all of the characters.

Laughter on the 23rd Floor runs through June 17 at the Lesher Theatre located in the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek. For tickets call 925-943-7469 or go to www.dlrca.org.

Center Rep's last production of the current season will be Willy Russell's one person show starring Kerri Shawn and directed by George Maguire, opening on June 29 and running through July 29.


Photo: Heidi Madison


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema



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