MAKING IT FUNNY Cartier, Fish, Sullivan, Jr., and Andrew. [Photo by Mark Turek]
How could Neil Simon’s Laughter On the 23rd Floor lose, with its set-up of seven comedy writers whipping up yuks for an already entertaining boss?
Ocean State Theatre Company is trying to find out, under direction by Brad Van Grack, just how funny that can be (through February 16). Spoiler alert: they’re succeeding.
The writers’ room at NBC gives various indications that antic and time-panic deadlines are met here, with things like a red feather boa, a trumpet and, most revealingly, the clock above a door impaled by a scattering of suction-tipped arrows.
This couldn’t avoid being one of Simon’s funniest and uncontrived comedies, since it’s based on his experiences as a newbie writer for Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, which was popular in the early 1950s (Caesar died on February 12 at age 91). Like the sure-fire premise of Laughter, Caesar’s team couldn’t miss, since some of them would eventually be deified as gods of comedy writing — Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart (M*A*S*H), Woody Allen.
It’s 1953 and the stand-in for Simon is Lucas Brickman (Matt DaSilva), a young fly-on-the-wall writer on a trial four-week contract. As he’s told what to expect, the historical underpinnings of this story become evident: making their boss a terror would be much funnier than their description of Max Prince (Fred Sullivan, Jr.) as supportive, respectful, and paying them very well.
The co-writers are quite a colorful parade. Milt (Jean-Pierre Ferragamo) wears a cape and beret to get attention. Head writer Val (Mark S. Cartier) has a Russian accent and says “fock” a lot. Brian (Tom Andrew) is the token Irishman in this Jewish comedy cabal, and he’s desperate to have a screenwriting deal pluck him away to Hollywood . Kenny (Tyler Fish) is insightful enough to say things like “nobody hates Max like Max hates Max.” Carol (Amiee Turner) is there for wisecracks reflecting a female point of view. And Ira (Tommy Labanaris), in the only wildly over-the-top characterization, is a hypochondriac, coming in late every morning to writhe and describe his latest symptoms. Ira represents Mel Brooks, while oddly no character here is based on Woody Allen, whose comic persona often relied on being a hypochondriac.
As you’d expect, there’s plenty of snappy banter. Val: “This is not a day to make me angry.” Milt: “Oh. Put me down for Wednesday.” Carol is upset that Sen. McCarthy called General George C. Marshall a card-carrying Communist, so Brian asks, “Why would he have cards printed up?” But soon things get serious — within reason. Max is late, and Max is never late. The night before, he made drunken calls to a couple of them, a shotgun involved, so they’re worried about his getting paranoid.
When Max does arrive, the energy dial is turned up to 11. Sullivan comes across like a tumbling dog fight in a well-cut suit, citing ancient Greek battles to make his points. Seething, Max has bad news: the network wants to cut the 90-minute show to an hour, even though it has swept the Emmys for the past four years. It’s “too sophisticated,” the executives say, with spoofs of foreign films and the like. Max quotes the network president as saying: “Give the people shit.” Because it sells.