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Laughter on the 23rd Floor

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A funny thing: (from left) Art DeConciliis, Jesse Warnick, Buddy Wickerham and Grant Carey in Laughter on the 23rd Floor, at Little Lake Theatre
  • A funny thing: (from left) Art DeConciliis, Jesse Warnick, Buddy Wickerham and Grant Carey in Laughter on the 23rd Floor, at Little Lake Theatre

Oh look, here comes another one from hitmeister Neil Simon, with Little Lake Theatre's production of Laughter on the 23rd Floor. It's Simon's fictionalized account of television's early years and the time he spent writing (along with Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, among others) for Sid Caesar and Your Show of Shows.

Laughter had a respectable run of 300-plus performances in its 1993 Broadway premiere; nothing to sneeze at, certainly, but Simon usually runs much longer.

That short run puzzles me because Laughter on the 23rd Floor is, in my opinion, Simon's best play. His early works are just jokey jokefests, and while he does achieve more depth in his later plays (the "BB" trilogy and Lost in Yonkers), their relentless focus on adolescent and teen-age boys leaves me unmoved.

But Laughter achieves import without seeming to even try. The set-up is simple: The writer's room of a TV show, populated by some of the smartest, funniest and most screwed-up people imaginable, overseen by the Caesar stand-in, Max Prince -- a leonine man as funny as he is lethally deranged. The play, set against the backdrop of the McCarthy hearings, takes place when television was becoming a big business and spreading into America's heartland.

The endless battles between Prince and the network have shredded everyone's nerves, and paranoia rules the day. The network's complaint that the show is too smart and too New York is really just code for "too Jewish," and Simon, with both sleight-of-hand and insight, shows how assimilation became a 1950s survival technique for Jews ... reeling from the Holocaust in Europe and the anti-Semitic subtext of the Red Scare in America.

The real reason, I think, for the play's rather short run is that Simon's built-in audience, a ... shall we say? ... mature crowd, had problems with the language. Stick eight comedy writers in a room and you get two things -- pages of side-splitting dialogue and nonstop vulgarity. (Hmmm, maybe that's why I love this fucking funny play.)

Director Mark A. Calla and an exceptionally sturdy cast give Simon and his words their deserved respect (nobody's trying to bring new meaning to the script) and are at their best taking advantage of all the theatricality the author has provided. Art DeConciliis, Matt Marceau and Dale Irvin are especially effective, but everyone does solid work bringing home this hard-hitting comedy.

 

Laughter on the 23rd Floor continues through July 3. Little Lake Theatre, 500 Lakeside Drive South (off Route 19), Canonsburg. 724-745-6300 or www.littlelaketheatre.org

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