‘Laughter’ lives up to its name

The New Jewish Theatre cast of ‘Laughter on the 23rd Floor.’


Neil Simon is not only perhaps the greatest comedic playwright of all time, but his prolific output of memorable plays places him in the top rank of American dramatists of any era. The skills that won Simon more Tony and Academy Awards than any other writer are on full display in the New Jewish Theatre’s superb production of Simon’s “Laughter on the 23rd Floor.” The play is based on the writer’s own experiences as part of a legendary comedy writing team for the classic 1950s TV variety program, “Your Show of Shows,” which starred the larger-than-life Sid Caesar as the main character, supported by Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner and Howard Morris. 

Directed with skill and verve by NJT Artistic Associate Edward Coffield and featuring a uniformly strong cast led by Alan Knoll, “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” faithfully recreates the laugh-a-minute, highly charged atmosphere of the greatest and most talented team of comedy writers ever assembled.

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They are Simon himself, represented in the play by the character Lucas Brickman, played by Christian Vieira in a restrained performance as the rookie on the over-the-top comedy team. Kenny Franks is based on Larry Gelbart, who would later be the lead writer for M*A*S*H* and who is played by Jordan Reinwald in the NJT production. Mel Tolkin, the Russian Jewish immigrant comedy writer is Val Slotsky in the NJT play, convincingly played by Bob Harvey. Michael Stewart, the lone Irish-Catholic on the otherwise all-Jewish team, is called Brian Doyle and is played by B. Weller. Milt Fields, terrifically portrayed by Bobby Miller, is a composite character based on the comic genius duo of Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner.

The lone female on the raucous, raunchy team back in 1953 was Selma Diamond, called Carol Wyman in Simon’s script and played by Kirsten Wylder in an affecting performance. Rounding out that legendary team was none other than Woody Allen, who is called Ira Stone in Simon’s play, a hypochondriac and neurotic constellations of quirks, who is nonetheless the most brilliant and fast-working talent on the team. Gary Wayne Barker is exceptionally well cast in this key role. And Alan Knoll, as the Sid Caesar-based Max Prince, delivers a tour-de-force performance as the towering, bellowing, brilliant, compassionate and highly addictive star of “Your Show of Shows.”

The jokes keep coming and coming in “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” so you may need to see it twice to hear all the lines that will be drowned out by the laughter from the previous cracks. In addition to the humor, however, there is a subtext of sadness to the play. Set in March 1953, the action takes place in the midst of the infamous blacklisting era of Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, who found a Communist under every rock, and whose cruel “outing” of former Communists and radicals in show business led many writers, directors and actors to nervous breakdowns or even suicides.

And then there are the personal “tragedies” that confront the writing team, such as Milt Fields’ potential divorce, which erodes his normally jovial facade. But even that pales in comparison to the harsh reality that Max Prince confronts when NBC bean-counters threaten to shorten or possibly cancel his show. In Knoll’s capable hands, Prince reveals a softer side as the superstar who wants to protect his team from the devastating news that the show might be cancelled.

“Your Show of Shows” featured hysterically funny and intellectually stimulating parodies of then-current movies, such as “On the Waterfront” or the version of “Julius Caesar” starring Marlon Brando. Knoll’s Prince truly channels Sid Caesar doing a perfect imitation of Brando as the mumbling, Method Actor who immortalized Stanley Kowalksi in “A Streetcar Named Desire” as Julius Caesar. For those old enough to remember those original skits, which appeared many, many years before “Saturday Night Live,” the temptation is strong to shout “Hail Caesar! (Julius and Sid), as the NJT cast brings those golden days vividly back to life.

NJT has wisely chosen to end its “Bar Mitzvah Season” and its first production in the beautifully refurbished, state-of-the-art venue in the Arts & Education Building of the Jewish Community Center, one of the brightest gems in the crown of Neil Simon. Treat yourself to a memorable, funny and moving evening of good theater at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theater. But remember to bring a sweater or jacket as the air conditioning in the new theater was working in overdrive at the opening night performance.

‘Laughter on the 23rd Floor’

WHO: New Jewish Theatre

WHEN: through June 20

WHERE: Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre in the JCC Arts & Education Building

HOW MUCH: $24-$34

MORE INFO: 314-442-3175 or www.newjewishtheatre.org