'23rd Floor': Laughter a la 1950s TV, with an edge

(From left) Megan McDermott, Bruce Graham, David Edwards, Carl Wallnau, George Deihl. Neil Simon's 1993 play is based on the production of the sketches for Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows."
(From left) Megan McDermott, Bruce Graham, David Edwards, Carl Wallnau, George Deihl. Neil Simon's 1993 play is based on the production of the sketches for Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows."
Posted: March 23, 2014

I could easily dismiss Laughter on the 23rd Floor as harmless nostalgia. Neil Simon's 1993 play takes place in 1953, when he and "the finest writing staff in the history of TV" produced the weekly sketches for Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows.

Simon's semiautobiographical piece, now at Bristol Riverside Theatre, disguises or blends the main players: He renames himself Lucas Brickman (Jason Silverman), Caesar becomes Max Prince (David Edwards), and Mel Brooks turns up as Ira Stone (Ben Lloyd). Larry Gelbart, Carl Reiner, Mel Tonkin, and Lucille Kallen wrote for the show as well, and figure as characters (though Woody Allen, also a writer, does not). A ton of comedic genius, well worth documenting in a script that consists of little plot but plenty of punch lines.

Every other line fires off an insult, one-liner, or retort; this tremendously talented cast proves in spades Simon's statement that "all comedy is based on hostility."

There's humor for everyone, between Carl Wallnau's understated Russian-emigre language jokes and Bruce Graham's trod-under Everyman. Lloyd presents a paragon of physical comedy in every scene. Designer Jason Simms' visually overpowering office set heightens the sense of historical reality.

The loose plot centers on Prince/Caesar's refusal to accommodate NBC network executives. Under Keith Baker's compelling direction, Edwards delivers a shattered, defeated comic, longing for freedom, yet forced to serve up dumbed-down sketches to new markets in Middle America.

His standout performance takes us beyond the history lesson or nostalgic look at an era of three channels and one homogenous audience, and gives us a reminder for our own age, when pundits bash cable's 500-channel dumbing-down of America and "smart" audiences coalesce around a handful of shows.

In both this play and his long, successful career as a playwright, Simon proves it's better, financially at least, to make 'em laugh, without troubling them to think too much.


THEATER REVIEW

Laughter on the 23rd Floor

At Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe St., Bristol. Through April 13.

Tickets: $31-$46. Information: 215-785-0100 or www.brtstage.org.

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