Posts Tagged ‘laughter on the 23rd floor’

Laughter on the 23rd Floor
by Neil Simon
Directed by Edward Coffield
 New Jewish Theatre
March 24, 2022

Jacob Flekier, John Wolbers, Joel Moses
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
New Jewish Theatre

The New Jewish Theatre is back to live performances with a lively new production of a well-paced, semi-autobiographical comedy by celebrated playwright Neil Simon. Laughter on the 23rd Floor is the playwrights look back at his early years as a television writer, but for NJT it’s a promising look ahead at a new season that’s finally able to get underway. It’s a welcome return for this company, and the strong cast makes the most of Simon’s vivid, personal look at an important era in his own life, as well as the entertainment industry’s–and the country’s–history. 

The “Golden Age of Television” may be a distant but living memory for some, or the subject of stories, rumors, and reruns for others. For Neil Simon, it was a formative era of his career as a comedy writer. This play is based on Simon’s early years as a writer for legendary television comic Sid Caesar, sharing a writers’ room with other up and coming writers including Mel Brooks and Larry Gelbart. Here, Simon has fictionalized the story somewhat, but the influence of his own personal life in the depiction of the early, formative years of television comedy is clear. Simon’s alter-ego in this play is Lucas Brickman (Jacob Flekier), an eager young writer who is excited to be working with a team he considers the best in the business, working on the staff for Sid Caesar-like TV star Max Prince (Ben Ritchie). Set entirely in the show’s writers’ room, it’s a story populated with larger-than-life characters, from the talented and caring but frequently insecure Max, to a collection of writers whose talents are obvious, but whose personalities constantly clash, including the theatrical Milt Fields (Joel Moses), world-weary Russian immigrant Val Skolsky (Aaron Mermelstein), ambitious Kenny Franks (Michael Pierce), attention-seeking, health-anxious Ira Stone (Dave Cooperstein), along with Irish-American Brian Doyle (John Wolbers), who aspires to write for the movies, and Carol Wyman (Kirsten De Broux), the only woman on the writing staff and, along with ditzy secretary Helen (Annie Zigman), one of only two women in the play, as a reflection of the times. Also in reflection of the times, we get to see not only the process of writing a hit comedy show in the early 1950s–we also get to see how the characters, and the show, are affected by world events, and especially the rise of McCarthyism and the haunting specter of the blacklist, as well as corporate influence on the arts, changing public tastes, and more. It’s a vivid look at a specific era in history, lent extra credibility by the fact that it’s informed by the playwright’s personal experiences.

The characters are sharply defined but, for the most part, manage to avoid stereotypes, and the actors here portray them with as much depth as can be imagined. Flekier makes for a likable, relatable focus character, narrating the proceedings and being an effective “tour guide” to this world and these characters. Ritchie conveys Max’s caring leadership especially well, even though not always as “big” a personality as he could be. The big personalities are definitely here, though, portrayed with excellent timing by Moses, Mermelstein, Pierce, and Cooperstein, who bring a strong sense of ensemble chemistry as their characters work, laugh, and bicker together at different times. De Broux is also strong in the somewhat underwritten role of Carol, and Zigman brings comic energy to her role as well, despite Helen’s being the closest thing to a real stereotype in the play. In an important way, the way this show plays out, the characters are the story, and this cast brings enthusiasm, strong timing, and lots of energy to the proceedings.

Technically, the show is something of a time machine, in that it effectively channels a bygone era in a way that’s immediate and relatable. From Rob Lippert’s detailed set, to Michele Friedman Siler’s period and character-specific costumes, the show brings 1953 to life with vivid style. There’s also excellent work from lighting designer Michael Sullivan, and sound and projection designer Ellie Schwetye, adding to the mood and atmosphere of the production.

I’m glad that NJT is finally back staging plays again, and Laughter on the 23rd Floor is an excellent choice to start the new season. It’s focus is on a much-written and talked about time in history that many today haven’t experienced first-hand, and this production manages to bring that world to life with an excellent cast and production values. It’s a light comedy much of the time, but with important moments of resonance, both as a look at history and a somewhat surprising reflection of today as well. It’s a memorable return to the stage for this excellent theatre company.

Michael Pierce, Ben Ritchie
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
New Jewish Theatre

The New Jewish Theatre is presenting Laughter on the 23rd Floor at the J’s Wool Studio Theatre until April 10, 2022

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