Monday, March 9, 2015

Laughter on the 23rd Floor at Harlequin

Heidi Rider and Nathan Rice

I was told by someone whose opinions about theater I respect that Laughter on the 23rd Floor is Neil Simon’s funniest play. I don’t know if I would go that far, but I will say it accurately captures the Rat Pack-style sophistication and the snappy, Borscht Belt one-liners of the ’50s in-crowd. Plus it exposes the corporatization of popular media with its resultant dumbing down of content and the “red-scare” milieu of the times.
 Laughter on the 23rd Floor is Simon’s most autobiographical play. It is based on his experience as a comedy writer for Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows. The play is set in the writer’s room for Max Prince’s variety show, with Prince (Jason Haws) based on Caesar. The writers are Brian (Jimmy Blackmon); Val (Christian Doyle), an immigrant from Russia; Ira (Xander Layden), possibly the most severe hypochondriac ever but also one of the best writers in the room; Carol (Maggie Ferguson-Wagstaffe), the only female writer on staff; Kenny (Gabriel McClelland); Milt (Nathan Rice); and Lucas (Mark Alford), a thinly disguised Neil Simon avatar who periodically addresses the audience as a narrator. And there’s a seemingly ditzy but actually smart secretary named Helen (Heidi Rider).
Jason Haws. In background from left: Christin Doyle. Gabriel McClelland, Maggie Ferguson-Wagstaffe, Mark Alford

Lucas is a new intern who hopes to be accepted by Max and hired as a staff writer. Wise-cracking Milt is always “on”—relying on attention-getting hats and suits and snappy one-liners to win favor with Max and his fellow writers (for all the writers it’s always about pleasing Max). Brian is convinced Hollywood is going to buy his script or some TV mogul is going to give him his own show. Kenny is a cynic and the only one in the room who can stand up to Max.
In front: Xander Layden; around table: Christin Doyle. Gabriel McClelland, Jimmy Blackmon and Mark Alford; standing: Maggie Ferguson-Wagstaffe

The network thinks the show is too intellectual for the broad audience they want to attract, and the writers have heard rumors that one or more of them is going to be fired—possibly even the whole team. While they all obsess with keeping their jobs, Carol is upset about Joseph McCarthy’s red baiting.
The ensemble cast does a good job. I was particularly impressed with McClelland for his measured approach combining common sense and humor, and with Layden, who is emerging as a first rate comic actor (witness his recent outstanding acting in TAO’s The Head That Wouldn’t Die). Rider was stylish and funny as the secretary. Doyle does a standup job in his portrayal of Val, but understanding his Russian accent was not easy.
Once again Jason Haws owns the stage. There’s little I can say about his acting without gushing like a fan after a Frank Sinatra concert in 1953. I defy you to look away when he’s on stage.
I loved Darren Mills’ period costumes. The hats, the suits, and Max’s garters make these writers look like 1950s versions of today’s geeks and nerds.
Marko Bujeaud’s video projections of city scenes outside the window lend class and verisimilitude to the set.
I suspect that many audience members will be so caught up in the comedy they’ll forget they’re watching an accurate depiction of an important part of entertainment history and of a crucial part of American politics.

WHEN: Thursdays through Saturdays, 8p.m., Sundays 2 p.m. through Oct. 28
WHERE: State Theater, 202 E. 4th Ave., Olympia
TICKETS: prices vary, call for details
INFORMATION: 360-786-0151;

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