BWW Reviews: Ocean State Theatre Company's Hilarious LAUGTHER ON THE 23RD FLOOR Provides Non-Stop Laughs
As the calendar turns to February, the weather is, for the moment, remarkably mild. Spring, though, is far off and cold, dreary days are still to come. It's the perfect time to sit in a cozy theater and have your spirits lifted watching a hysterical play that fills you with the warmth of joyfulness and fun. Ocean State Theatre Company has exactly what you need with their production of Neil Simon's Laughter on the 23rd Floor.
Simon's play is semi-autobiographical, set in a television writer's room and based on his own experiences writing for "Your Show of Shows." Laughter is populated with characters based on Simon himself as well as other actual writers from the classic comedy show, including Larry Gelbart, Mel Tolkin and Mel Brooks. There's also a character based on Sid Ceasar, a similar comic legend named Max Prince, star of the fictional "The Max Prince Show."
Max is a bit unhinged and perhaps a little nuts. Ok, he's more than just a little nuts, but that's all part of his lovable charm. Like many great comedians, Max is an emotional, volatile, difficult personality and Fred Sullivan, Jr. perfectly portrays this tortured soul wrapped in the guise of a comic genius. Sullivan is a member of Trinity Rep's resident acting company and he's been giving tour de force performances there and at other area stages for years. He seems right at home in his first appearance at Ocean State Theatre Company. His energy and stage presence command the entire theater and he brings not just boundless enthusiasm to the role, but also a deeply believable truth and honesty to the real human being he's creating on stage.
Also making her debut on the Ocean State stage is Amiee Turner, the company's Producing Artistic Director. Turner demonstrates her own impressive stage presence and charisma, no doubt a big part of her pre-OSTC successful theatrical career. Her performance here is consistent, committed and frequently hilarious. Though her character, Carol, the only female writer on the show, is not always given much to do, Turner is always focused and in the moment, lending an important energy to the scene. One minor nitpick is that her "I want to be a good writer not just a woman writer" speech seemed a little shaky on press night, although I have no doubt she has the ability to knock it out of the park.
It's a lot of fun to watch these two major players in the Rhode Island theater community combine their powers on stage. Hopefully there will be more of this kind of great collaboration in the future. Turner and Sullivan even sounds like an old-school comedy act, maybe they should make that happen.
Having said that, they are also, in this production, surrounded by a wonderful ensemble filled with highly talented and extremely funny people. The two biggest standouts are Jean-Pierre Ferragamo as Milt and Tommy Labanaris as Ira. Ferragamo excels at physical comedy but also has perfect timing when it comes to a witty comeback or sarcastic one-liner. It's a close race for which actor has the highest percentage of hilarious lines, but Ferragamo might just win by a nose and he delivers all of them perfectly. Labanaris is a hilarious scene-stealer as the writer who is also a severe hypochondriac. He's got more than a few laugh-out-loud moments where he demonstrates a mastery of physical comedy and the ability to say and do some ridiculous things with a completely straight face.
The rest of the writers are a little less unique but no less funny. Mark S. Cartier as Val, Tyler Fish as Kenny and Tom Andrew as Brian all have their individual moments to shine and take full advantage. Matt Dasilva plays Lucas, the stand-in for young Neil Simon himself, and he's great as the fresh-faced and innocent aspiring writer thrust into this crazy world for the first time. Erin Fish is also great in a smaller role as Helen, the secretary, but like everyone else, she has a number of very funny moments.
Leading the way for this production is director Brad Van Grack, making his directing debut with OSTC. He keeps the pace quick, gives every moment and joke their due, and gets all the comic timing down as it should be. On the other hand, his staging is pretty much restricted to two options: 1) everybody sit around the table, or 2) everybody spread out as much as possible and completely fill the stage. Both can be problematic. When everyone is sitting around the table, the actors downstage of the table block the actors who are upstage. This is unfortunate because there are great moments based solely on the reactions and expressions of the actors sitting upstage of the table, and some audience members can't see them. When everybody is spread far and wide across the stage, moments are missed again. Watching what is happening way over on one side, it's nearly impossible to see the hilarious moment happening way over on the other side. These both may be less problematic if an audience member is sitting farther back in the theater.