Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Laughter on the 23rd Floor
Also see Richard's review of Behind the Sheet
But the second way of looking at it is that it's inadvertently the most trenchant snapshot of our own time here in 2022. Just like 1953, there's worry about a potential nuclear showdown. And because of a stone-faced leading man, playing a rubber-faced comedian, and because of our own current events, this Simon romp now and then looks a bit more like the super dark movie satire, Dr. Strangelove, than The Odd Couple or Barefoot in the Park. But the good news is: Simon's characters all survived it, so maybe we can too.
The writers' room onstage is full of brash, exasperated New Yorkers (and New Jersey suburbanites). But they could represent any modern American, owing to the fact that we've all been raised on TV comedies, in the 70 years after Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows," and we all talk like comedy writers, purely by osmosis. Looming in the background, a vicious madman in Moscow (Josef Stalin) has just acquired the hydrogen bomb and an American madman in Washington D.C. (Republican Senator Joseph R. McCarthy) is pushing the nation rightward, toward fascism. Like Dr. Strangelove, it ends up being a lot more "funny-hmm," than "funny-haha."
My advice is to go see it, as a disguised (and accidental) commentary on America in 2022. You won't laugh much, but you'll gasp in recognition at how people can joke their way through their worst fears. They're all being corporate-down-sized, as they confront the 1953 version of globalization with NBC expanding its affiliate stations into the West and south where audiences are not so hip to the New York-style of anything. Laughter doesn't market itself at all as social commentary but, in its baffling and pervasive sense of endangerment, maybe it should.
As the Sid Caesar character, who's supposed to be filled with pain and anger, Ben Ritchie is stoic and stone faced in general (which works great for him in dramatic plays). He's funny now and then, in the way leading men tend to be funny, which is grudging at best.
Aaron Mermelstein is excellent as a sort of S.Z. "Cuddles" Sakall type in the writers room, the senior writer with a thick Russian accent. Jacob Flekier does nicely as the callow young narrator, and Annie Zigman is delightful as their secretary. Joel Moses exudes a quiet sort of terror as another writer. There is fine work from highly resourceful actors Michael Pierce, John Wolbers, Dave Cooperstein and Kirsten De Broux. And there are terrific costumes by Michelle Friedman Siler.
Laughter on the 23rd Floor runs through April 10, 2022, at New Jewish Theatre, Jewish Community Center, #2 Millstone Campus Drive, St. Louis MO. Masks are currently required inside the building. For tickets and information, please visit www.newjewishtheatre.org.