April 18 CNY Playhouse: Laughter on the 23rd Floor

Photo by Amelia Beamish

Photo by Amelia Beamish

CNY Playhouse’s ‘Laughter on the 23rd floor’ a ‘skyscraper’ of a comedy

Okay, they don’t look Jewish — but the actors in this amusing retrospect on the mid-1950s Sid Caesar TV comedy series stack up as tall as a NY-sized pastrami sandwich

By David Abrams

It’s hard to imagine a baby boomer who has not seen, or at least heard of, Sid Caesar’s side-splitting television comedy-variety show that aired live from 1950-54, Your Show of Shows.  Television had all of three channels back then — and a good many of the sets were tuned to NBC each Saturday evening for Caesar and Imogene Coca.

One of the writers for the show was the young and up-and-coming Neil Simon, who pays homage in this semi-autobiographical play to Caesar and his crew of misfit comedic writers from the early days of television.  Laughter on the 23rd floor chronicles the chaos and frenzy of the writers’ collaborative process in Your Show of Shows, transporting the audience back in time to the room where these quick-witted but argumentative writers duked it out competing for the attention of The King of Comedy himself, Sid Caesar.

CNY Playhouse takes the audience on a hilarious romp through this virtual “war room” of words, set during the height of the McCarthy era when sponsor-driven shows were broadcast live.  And it does so with a magnificent set that captures almost every detail and nuance of the mid-50s.  And although the chain of exceptional actors in this character-driven production had a weak link or two, the troupe — directed by Dustin Czarny (who also plays one of the writers on the show) — forges an affable ensemble that weaves its way into the audience’s hearts and ultimately leaves them in stitches.

Simon’s Laughter on the 23rd floor, which opened on Broadway in 1993 (with Nathan Lane as Sid Caesar’s alter ego, Max Prince), is a Roman à clef: The fictitious characters in the show represent actual comedic writers from the original series.  Your Show of Shows is now The Max Prince Show, and writers Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner and Mel Tolkin are the characters Ira Stone, Kenny Franks and Val Slotsky, respectively.  Lucas Brickman, the new writer on the show who serves as the story’s narrator, represents Neil Simon.

The office where these characters write, masterfully recreated here by Navroz Dabu, serves as the backdrop upon which insults and invectives intertwine like contrapuntal lines in a Bach fugue.  Only instead of melodic lines, this fugue comprises humor.  Jewish humor.  And despite the bickering from the dysfunctional staff, the 90-minute show managed to go on week after week.  “All humor is based on hostility,” explains head-writer Val — prompting Kenny to add, “That’s why World War II was so funny.”

The plot, such as it is, revolves around Max Prince and his battle with NBC moguls over the show’s declining ratings.  The Max Prince Show, which continues to perform well in the East, is slowly giving ground to The Lawrence Welk Show in the less-urbane Midwestern markets.  Now the broadcasting company is demanding that Max dumb down the humor.

Max, understandably, doesn’t take these suggestions well.  He has less-than-kind words for Mr. Welk and declares war on the network, sounding his battle call not with a trumpet but with a mixture of tranquilizers and scotch.  It is well to remember, however, that Laughter on the 23rd floor is not so much story-driven as it is punch-line driven: The humor comes at you non-stop until you’re completely surrounded.  Just like Lawrence Welk’s bubbles.

Veteran actor Ed Mastin is a remarkably good Max Prince.  Much like his portrayal of the sarcastic newspaper reporter E.K. Hornbeck in the company’s memorable production of Inherit the Wind, Mastin forges a dour, cynical character who scorns the establishment (here the bottom-line obsessed execs at NBC Studios), with no interest whatsoever in reaching a common middle-ground.

Mastin looks the part, as well.  Sporting a 1940s-vintage mustache and carrying a cigar in one hand and a glass of scotch in the other, Mastin appears on the verge of a mental breakdown.  We see him in a white shirt unbuttoned at the collar to accommodate a disheveled-looking tie, with suspenders tugging at his pants (when he wears them) as if in a losing battle with the forces of gravity.  He moves across the stage like a prizefighter who has been knocked to the canvass repeatedly yet refuses to throw in the towel.  And Mastin makes it abundantly clear that his character is, indeed, a fighter.

Jim Magnarelli as the Russian émigré head-writer Val Slotsky (representing real-life Mel Tolkin) played his part to perfection, and it was a pleasure to watch this confident and well-seasoned actor at work.  With his sturdy physical appearance, well-coiffed silver hair and thick Russian accent (which never missed an inflection), Magnarelli looked like he could have landed a part in the James Bond film From Russia With Love.  Indeed, his Slavic accent was so consistent and persuasive I began to wonder whether English is this man’s second language.

It takes about 45-minutes for Jim Uva, as Ira Stone, to make his initial appearance onstage.  But once he does he dominates the stage and the action, and comes near to stealing the show.  Uva, who I felt was miscast as the ultra-cool Mr. White in the company’s earlier production of Reservoir Dogs, was a perfect fit for the hypochondriac writer (based upon the real-life persona of Mel Brooks).  To this I’ll add that Uva is the only character in the show who looks even remotely Jewish.

Uva has a powerful speaking voice and uses it to forge a loud and brash character who cries out for attention at every turn.  Ira’s imaginary ailments may fuel the laughter in this story, but it’s Uva’s histrionics and facial expressions that turn this laughter into sidesplitting hilarity.  Judging from his impromptu performance of Roma, how I love ya, how I love ya (sung to the tune of Swanee), I’d say Uva’s got a nice voice, to boot.

Dan Rowlands crafted Neil Simon’s alter ego, Lucas Brickman, with the proper combination of sobriety, wonder and awe befitting an aspiring young writer in the company of comic titans.  Rowlands’s acting and body movements are natural and convincing as the straight man in this story, and he delivers his lines with crisply articulated diction.

CNY Playhouse Artistic Director Dustin Czarny does double-duty in this production, directing and playing the role of the hard-smoking, hacking-coughing Irishman, Brian Doyle.

Czarny is quick to remind us that he has not acted in seven years.  But acting, like riding a bicycle, is a lifelong skill one hardly forgets.  Czarny, whose character chain smokes his way through the play (Czarny uses herbal cigarettes), inherited the role after the original actor had left the show early on (perhaps he did not care for cigarettes).  Except for some diction problems due to his somewhat raspy speaking voice, Czarny forged a credible character as the nicotine-addicted comic.  And like the seasoned director he is, Czarny knows to face the audience when delivering his lines.  He knows how to turn up the volume, too.  His shouting matches with Uva could be heard clear across Shoppingtown Mall and well into the parking lot.

As the flamboyant gagman Milt Fields, Lanny Freshman cuts a cheerful character who in many ways resembles the wisecracking Morey Amsterdam from the 1960s sitcom, The Dick Van Dyke Show.  Fields nevertheless has a tendency to turn his back to the audience while speaking, rendering many of his words virtually inaudible.  That’s a real shame, because Simon gives Milt some of the funniest one-liners in the play.  In this play, when even a single word is garbled the snap, crackle and pop of the rapid banter between comedians quickly loses its fizz.

This having been said, Fields crafts a lovable character in this production and injects his part with energy and gusto.  I hope to see him in other roles, but this one is a bit of a challenge due to his age, which makes it difficult for the audience to identify him with a philandering comic supposedly in his mid-40s.  It simply doesn’t work when he makes a pass at the attractive twenty-something Helen at the Christmas party.

Gina Fortino, as the only female comedy writer on the staff, champions her feminist views and anti-McCarthy tirades with resolve and passion, and ultimately succeeds in becoming “one of the boys.”  Due to an unfortunate staging problem in the first act, every third or fourth word out of her mouth was smothered by the clomping of her hard-heeled shoes when she walked across the wooden floor — a distracting annoyance, to be sure.

David Vickers, as the brightest and most sophisticated comic of the bunch, Kenny Franks, cuts a tall and handsome figure onstage and carries himself well when moving about the office.  Vickers does not, however, exude the same level of comfort and confidence in his manner of acting as the others, and some of his lines sound contrived, at least at this early stage of the production run.

As Max’s attractive secretary (and show biz wannabe) Helen, Crystal Rowlands makes the most of her small role and seems comfortable whenever she takes the stage.  Rowlands, dressed in muted fashion throughout much of the show, came to the party at the end of the show looking like a cover girl on a women’s magazine.  This adds power to Milt’s punch-line when she tells him “I’d give anything to live in Hollywood.”

“Well,” says Milt, “that’s all it takes, honey.”

Details Box:
WhatLaughter on the 23rd Floor by Neil Simon, directed by Dustin Czarny
Who: Central New York Playhouse
Where: Shoppingtown Mall, Dewitt NY (2nd floor, next to Macy’s)
Performance reviewed: Friday, April 18, 2014 (opening night)
Remaining performances: Plays through May 3
Ticket information: Call 315-885-8960 or http://www.cnyplayhouse.com
Length:  About two hours and 15 minutes, including intermission
Ticket prices:  $15 to $20; dinner and show $34.95 (Saturdays only)
Family guide: Frequent profanity (including the F-bomb), and smoking onstage

Copyright 2014, CNY Cafe Momus

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