Full disclosure time: prior to May 13, 2022, I did not know that “Roman à clef” meant “novel with a key.” Courtesy of Neil Simon, Google, and Meghan Daaboul’s directorial bucket list, I am now enlightened – and delighted to have been in the preview night audience for HART’s offering of Laughter on the 23rd Floor. Having been subjected to a few too many productions of The Odd Couple and Barefoot in the Park, I was a bit wary of another play by the prolific and awesomely talented, but sometimes predictable, Simon. However, this lightly novelized tragi-comic take gives an eye-opening perspective on a seminal period in the history of American television writing. With its frequent swipes at McCarthy (Joe, not Kevin) and the oppressive politics of an establishment eager to label anything out of the mainstream as communism, it is thoroughly entertaining and remarkably relevant.
Quick summary: it’s early 1953, and the play is set in the writer’s room of a New York based television variety show called “The Max Prince Show” (a paper thin disguise of Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows”). A group of slightly mad writers collaborate on the sketches that form the backbone of the 1.5 hour show. Prince is a constant thorn in the side of the network, which wants to cut the show to one hour, cut the budget, and introduce a less sophisticated style of comedy that will sell better in Middle America – something that neither Prince nor his writers have any interest in doing. By the end of Act II, several months have passed, the network has won the battle (they do, after all, control the purse strings), and Prince decides to throw in the towel, leaving his writers unmoored and unemployed. Very little research makes “the key” of this particular Roman à clefvery clear – the characters represent such comic geniuses as Larry Gelbart (“Mash”), Carl Reiner (“The Dick Van Dyke Show” and so much more), Tony Webster (“Phil Silvers Show”), Mel Brooks (need I say more?), and even the playwright, Neil Simon (whose character, Lucas, acts as narrator).
Given the much larger-than-life characters who inhabited the real writer’s room, there is a very clear danger that Laughter on the 23d Floor could be an orgy of overacting and cheap imitation – but director Daaboul has neatly sidestepped this peril. Her actors all play their roles with varying degrees of looniness, but there is a fundamental restraint in their performances that underscores the reality behind the script. As Lucas (the narrator), Brandon Weaver is the closest thing to a straight man, and he gives us a clear idea of how Simon must have felt as the new kid on this particular writer’s block. Steve Koeppen (as the beret toting Milt) immediately introduces the theme of utter insanity, but calmly reveals the method in his madness when he clues Lucas into the comedic politics of catching Prince’s attention in a room full of whackos.
While there are truly no weak links in the cast, a few performances really take the show to the next level. I loved the narrow-eyed cynicism of Seth Wayne’s understated “Brian,” and Erin Bickler (as “Carol,” the only female writer) oozes with quiet resentment of the male-dominated culture of the group. For me, a real star turn comes from Michael Rouches (as Ira), a neurotic hypochondriac who playwright Simon openly based on Mel Brooks. I probably won’t have the opportunity to see the show again, but if I could it would be primarily to watch Rouches do his thing.
Costume coordinator Kelcey Weaver has done a spectacular job of dressing the eclectic cast in attire appropriate to both the period and the eccentricity of the characters. William Crawford’s set design is detailed and attractive, and (for me) a highlight of the show is the spectacular view of the New York skyline from the 23d floor window.
Portland area theaters will probably do a dozen or more Odd Couples before Laughter on the 23rd Floor reappears on a local stage, and courtesy of a Covid-related delay there’s only a two-week run, so tickets are going fast. Catch this little gem while you can!
Laughter on the 23rd Floor is playing at the HART Theatre, 185 SE Washington, Hillsboro through May 22nd, with performances Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m.