BWW Review: In LAUGHTER ON THE 23rd FLOOR, Neil Simon Shares the Golden Age of Television Writer Room Craziness
After working in the Warner Brothers Manhattan office mailroom, Playwright Neil Simon got his first big break as a staff writer on Sid Caesar's celebrated television series "Your Show of Shows," a live 90-minute variety show starring comedy legends Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca that ran from 1950 to 1954. The writing staff had a staggering talent pool that included; Mel Tolkin (All in the Family), Carl Reiner (Dick Van Dyke Show, The Jerk), Mel Brooks (Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, Space Balls), Michael Stewart (Bye Bye Birdie, Hello Dolly!), Joseph Stein (Fiddler on the Roof), Lucille Kallen (worked on Broadway), Danny Simon (The Carol Burnett Show, Diff'rent Strokes) and his brother Neil Simon (The Odd Couple, Murder by Death).As a way of sharing his own experience working as the "new kid" learning the ropes from the other, more experienced writers, Neil Simon wrote the outrageous comedy LAUGHTER ON THE 23rd FLOOR, which takes place in March 1953 and offers a fictionalized look at the backstage bedlam that went into producing one of the precedent-setting shows of television's golden age. With the names changed to protest the guilty, the play centers on Max Prince (Don Schlossman who absolutely perfectly channels Sid Caesar's outrageous humor and behavior), as the star of "The Max Prince Show," a hugely popular variety series that is a major hit on the coasts. In the play's opening scene, we first meet the "new kid" Lucas (Jeff Rolle, Jr.), who tells us he is there to share the story of his first few weeks on the job when the network insists that the show is too sophisticated for the Midwest and urges Prince to dumb down his act. Enter the writers to the rescue: Melissa Brandzel (Carol), Ryan Knight (Brian), Christopher McNair (Kenny), Richard Perloff (Val, the Russian head writer who attempts to lead the pack), Daniel Tennant (the uber-talented Ira who is always late for work), and Bill Wolski (Milt). Prince's clueless secretary Helen is played by Kathryn Farren. The quick-paced banter and movement are expertly directed by Holly Baker-Kreiswirth, who shares, "I'm excited for the opportunity to bring Neil Simon's words to life and to work with this dream cast. It's not often that you get to see what happened behind the curtain on classic television shows. Laughter gives us a glimpse of a genius writer's room with material that is rich, raucous, and side-splittingly funny." How right she is!
Between the tensions of producing and being pestered about his ratings, Prince is beginning to unravel, and Schlossman is an absolute riot given his rubbery facial expressions and physical daffiness, which the other comics seem to have picked up from him along the way as well as adding in their own individual strange habits and mannerisms. Just wait until you see Tennant jump up on Val's desk and share Ira's impersonation of Al Jolson singing "Swanee" which I guarantee will garner a ton of applause, as will Wolski's futile attempt to hide the fact Milt wore a white suit to work without realizing how negatively Prince will react to it. I could go on and on sharing these moments of comedic genius, but I don't want to spoil all the fun!Prince is well aware his last line of defense is his writing staff, with Simon's comedy sharing the craziness in the Writers Room as they spend days coming up with sketches for the show while hurling hilarious barbs at each other and anyone else within earshot. Get ready to laugh out loud throughout every single moment, given the perfect cast led by director Baker-Kreiswirth, who works on-screen and in several top television series, making her personally familiar with the nutty world of live entertainment media.
With this kind of expert play production, and their brand new electrical/air conditioning/heating systems now in place, Little Fish Theatre is destined to continue as a small theater offering BIG talent and excellent staged entertainment. Learn more about them and purchase tickets for their shows at www.littlefishtheatre.org. This cast is well worth the drive to San Pedro!
Neil Simon's LAUGHTER ON THE 23RD FLOOR runs through May 20 on Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00pm, with one Sunday matinee on Mother's Day, May 14 at 2:00pm which features a special Talkback session where the actors and creative team will be available for a post-show discussion with the audience. Little Fish Theatre is located in San Pedro's Arts District at 777 S. Centre St., San Pedro, CA 90731. Regular priced tickets are $27/$25 for seniors for the remainder of the run and may be purchased online at www.littlefishtheatre.org, or reserved by phone at 310-512-6030, or by text at 424-226-6030.
Popular subscription packages of Anytime Tickets are available now and can be used at any of Little Fish Theatre's regular season productions, at any time. Arrive early as the small parking lot fills quickly and street parking can be difficult to find in close proximity. But that's okay - enjoy your walk through the Arts District.
Photos by Mickey Elliott