Monday, October 24, 2016

Tried and true “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” brings back memories of another era.

Although Neil Simon’s 1993 play “Laughter on the 23rd Floor”, now in a solid production at North Coast Repertory Theatre through Nov. 20th  doesn’t count as part of Simon’s “B B Trilogy” Brighton Beach memoirs”, Biloxi Blues” and Broadway Bound” all of which have been mounted at NCR throughout the years) but it does take the audience back to the days in the early 50’s when Simon was but one of a gaggle of comedy writers for Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows”. Ah yes, I remember it well.

Louis Lotorto,  Brett Alters and Phil Johnson
Simon’s alter ego Lucas (Brett Alters) is once again looking from the outside in, a tactic he uses in many of his plays. He is part narrator and part participant. No less than eight “funny people” gather each day on the 23rd floor of a Manhattan building on 57th Street behind Fifth and Sixth Avenues to write new material, aka jokes, for Caesar’s show (or the fictional Max Prince Show) that airs once a week on NBC. The room itself is called the ‘writers room.’

Marty Burnett designed the fitting set with a picture gallery of stars lining the walls. Everything from water cooler to file cabinets to a blue sofa, a writing table and dart board to blow off steam and a few framed holes in the walls compliments of Max, in fits of anger,  fill the room. Elisa Benzoni designed the period cloths and Matt Novotny the lighting.

Cast of "Laughter on the 23rd Floor"
The original group included comedians the likes of Mel Brooks, Mel Tolkin, Larry Gelbart, Sheldon Keller, Danny Simon, (Neil’s brother) Gary Belkin, Lucille Kellen, Selma Diamond, Tony Webster, Carl Reiner and many others that came and went that I might have missed. Most of the seven involved in this cast are a conglomeration of the real thing.  

As Simon’s words jump off the pages of the script and out of the mouths of the characters in the play, the audience is treated to jokes galore, repartee, banter and gags by the minute along with some evidence of the outside world, seriously, like the Mc Carthy hearings that would eventually put a lid on some of the skits that were bantered about.   

Director Tom Markus choreographs each character with an ear for laughs that the cast delivers with the timing of a well-oiled machine. The team made up of a cross section of Americana, mostly European Jews and Irish make a natural comic sandwich as the two tribes took advantage of their ethnicity to poke fun. Put a few women in the mix, a Russian import and Simon et al have a rather well balanced team to write comedy. 

Omri Schein and Christopher M. Williams
Omri Schein takes Ira (aka Mel brooks) the hypochondriac to the limits making his first entrance with “I can’t breathe. I can’t catch my breath. I think it’s a heart attack. It could be a stroke.” And on he goes trying to conjure up the medicine he takes from one of his cadre of doctors…Zodioprotozoc. “No. Vasco something. Vasco da Dama.”

Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper plays Val, the mad Russian to perfection and Amanda Sitton is Carol one of the few women on the team who wanted to be known as a writer not a woman writer. Phil Johnson plays Kenny almost as an onlooker or the sane one in the group. Christopher M. Williams is the Brian Irish-American who yearns to make it big in Hollywood, and does in the end.

David Ellenstein
David Ellenstein makes good as Max the funny man who sputters ancient history as a learning lesson to his tribe of comedy writers while putting the fear of God into them if they don’t come through. They are loyal and cow tow to the giant as they worry as much about his habits of taking drugs with a shot of alcohol as thy do about keeping their jobs from week to week. 

Amanda Sitton, Phil Johnson, Brett Alters, Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper, David Ellenstein and Omri Schein
Luckily the egos in the cast never matched the characters they were portraying as the ensemble was able to bring out the best in each to no ones discredit and it’s funny to boot!

Throughout I was trying to figure out who the characters were as they made their first entrance on to the stage. Two things became clear, Max Prince was the Sid Caesar character and, as mentioned earlier, the rest were a compilation of the funny folks we depended upon for our evening of entertainment. It truly was nostalgic. 

What’s important here is that humor comes in all sizes, colors and flavors and one need not look to far to see it even in us. For this group however, it was an art and they excelled at it.   

“Your Show of Shows” ran for four years from 1950 to 1954. We used to look forward to it like a kid on a thrill ride. As Kenny said, “Maybe we’ll never have this much fun again in our entire lives.”

It’s still a keeper.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Extended through Nov. 20th
Organization: North Coast Repertory Theatre
Phone: 858-481-1055
Production Type: Comedy
Where: 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach, CA 92075
Ticket Prices: Start at $46.00. Senior discounts available

Photo: Aaron Rumley

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