Neil Simon comedy reminds us how fun in-person theater can be

Talented ensemble delivers in the New Jewish Theatre’s production of ‘Laughter on the 23rd Floor’

Jacob Flekier in the New Jewish Theatre production of Neil Simon’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor. Photo: Jon Gitchoff

JUDITH NEWMARK, Special to the Jewish Light

A Jew who escaped the Third Reich gets to New York. What should he do there? What else? Write comedy!

That man, Val, is portrayed with aplomb and a zesty Yiddish accent by Aaron Mermelstein in the New Jewish Theatre’s production of “Laughter on the 23rdFloor” — and he’s central to Neil Simon’s sweet-hearted stage memoir of his time as a writer for “Your Show of Shows.” Val would make an excellent character to build a whole play around.

But this is not that play. NOBODY is the central character in “Laughter,” an ensemble piece if ever there was one. If you insisted on picking one, however, it still wouldn’t be Val.

It would be Lucas, the very young writer who cannot believe that he has lucked into the best job he can imagine, working with some of the best people he’s ever going to know. Lucas stands in for Simon himself.


This is obviously comfortable territory for Jacob Flekier, who last appeared at NJT as a still-younger version of Simon in “Brighton Beach Memoirs.” He is our guide through the mischugas that, to his and our enduring astonishment, miraculously creates the original must-see TV every week. No wonder Flekier beams like a lightbulb from the inside-out. It’s a privilege to write there, and he knows it.

Directed by Eddie Coffield, the show boasts plenty of onstage talent, much of it familiar to St. Louis theater-goers plus some relative newcomers. They all get their moment to shine. David Cooperstein plays a hypochondriac writer (Woody Allen?). Joel Moses plays a nervous writer who courts disaster by coming to work in a white suit that begs to be mocked, then trying to hide behind newspapers and potted plants. Michael Pierce is a shrewd and debonaire writer (Carl Reiner? You can’t help guessing.) Kirsten De Broux plays the lone woman writer, John Wolbers plays the lone Gentile, an Irish charmer, and Annie Zigman plays a secretary who dreams of comedy writing down the road.

Fow now, they all work to serve the star of the show, Max Prince. (A little joke even there. Sid Caesar’s last name means “king.”) As Max, Ben Ritchie dominates every scene he is in – roaring, kidding, munching, truly a star. The writers orbit him like planets.

At one point, they are trying to create a skit based on a new hit movie, “Julius Caesar.” That was a real movie, in which Marlon Brando starred as Marc Antony. Big deal. Here, Max plays Caesar as if Brando were playing Caesar (Julius, not Sid) – and it works. You can almost imagine you really saw it that movie. It was no tragedy.

Coffield, who is NJT’s artistic director, made a smart choice in returning to live performance – after 22 months of lockdown! – with “Laughter.” Scholars have devoted volumes to the roots of Jewish humor, the persistence of Jewish humor, and the enormously outsized role that Jewish humor, and actual Jews, have played in American comedy.

These would all be worthwhile topics for a lecture series. (I’d go, wouldn’t you?) But Neil Simon was no academic. Instead, he gives us a close-up look at Jewish comedy in America, right in its kitchen, a place that most of us don’t get to go. His fictional version starts when the show is a big hit, then continues to its cancellation.

“Your Show of Shows,” was cancelled in 1954. It was still a great show. What happened? Today, the consensus is that, as more and more people all over the country owned television sets, they demanded different fare.

“Your Show of Shows” came to be seen as too “sophisticated.” Too “smart.” Too “New York.”  But isn’t that a euphemism for too . . .Well. We seem to have circled back to Val.

Neil Simon’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor

When: Through April 10

Where: The J’s Wool Studio Theatre, 2 Millstone Campus Drive

More info: Visit