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Neil Simon's reminiscences, dramatised.

Reviewed by Ewart Shaw, Wednesday 23rd November 2022.

Laughter on the 23rd Floor, Neil Simon's affectionate paean to his early years as a comedy writer, brings laughter to the ARTS Theatre, not the raucous audience outbursts, as in other theatres around Adelaide, but the gentler, rippling laughter evinced by his characters and their idiosyncrasies.

Anyone familiar, via YouTube, with such late-night American TV shows as hosted by Jimmy Kimmel and Steven Colbert, knows that much of their humour is created for them by the writers' room. Simon's play is about one of the first of these rooms and the way that the growing market for television and television comedy in the eastern states that emanated from New York, and its changes, marked a significant cultural shift from the Yiddish-based European and intellectual tradition, to a broader and more general comedy.

David Grybowsky directs from a deep knowledge and love of this tradition and his experience of the play from the inside, places him perfectly for what is, surprisingly, his directorial debut. His well-chosen cast presents excellent ensemble work. For some of us that particular cultural manifestation is something that we're familiar with. For others, not so well versed, he provides clues. Excerpts from American TV shows of that era are projected in the foyer and on stage. He even employs the device of the 'applause' screen, which lights up when a new character enters.

Robert Baulderstone is Lucas, Simon's character, who steps in and out of the room as our narrator, and Gavin Cianci is Max Prince, a thinly disguised Syd Caesar, around whom and whose ego, the writing team orbits. Jo Coventry, back on stage after how many years, is the one woman on the team. Penni Hamilton-Smith, and uncredited assistant director, Rose Vallen, start the show as cleaning ladies with an absolutely terrible seagull/bagel joke. Yes, you needed to be there.

Each of the writers is a portrait of one of the great spirits with whom Simon spent time in that room on the twenty-third floor. It's a roman à clef, but you don't need to know who is actually who to respond to their incarnations. Frank Cwertniak is Val, the Russian Jew, in, I think, his best performance ever. Thomas Filsell, Brian, the one goy among the guys, has a consistent Irish accent, with a dry wit and a wet cough. His cigarette habit will kill him at the start of his Hollywood career. I first encountered Andrew Horwood, in The Pitmen Painters, another excellent ensemble, and here he's Ira, sparky, neurotic, and energetic, a foil to the more or less restrained characterisations around him. Both Chris Gun as Milt and Antony Vawser as Kenny add finely detailed performances, while Lauren Weber, as Helen the secretary and keeper of Max's trousers, again you needed to be there, was deft, but could have projected more.

This is not faint praise doled out by a reviewer short of things to say. The production was an object lesson in what a cast of intelligent performers can do when handed a script of emotional subtlety, by a director steeped in the tradition whose nature imbues it, and who is deeply aware of the cultural changes that shape the narrative. I don't think the play is antisemitic in any way. Jewish humour is still alive and well, and the role of the writers' room is still vital to that curious late-night blend of jokes and political commentary that makes American television, at its best, such a fine thing. Hooray, second amendment.

Biographical note from the reviewer: my paternal line leads straight back to the first Jewish families to settle in Dublin in the 1700s. The family home is in Longwood Avenue, in what is known as the Jewman's Puzzle, and the former Great Synagogue is over the back fence.

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