It was 60—60!—years ago that Madison’s Strollers Theatre staged its very first local production. And it’s even longer since the 1950s era in which Neil Simon’s "Laughter on the 23rd Floor," the first play Strollers is re-staging to mark its anniversary season, is set. The former’s very much worth observing and celebrating. Despite strong acting and effort from the Strollers’ cast, the latter comes off feeling like a static relic of its age.
"Laughter on the 23rd Floor" (playing through September 24 in the Bartell Theatre) is based on Simon’s experiences on the writing staff for the '50s-era weekly TV variety series “Your Show of Shows,” starring Sid Caesar. Simon’s stand-in is the blandly affable Lucas Brickman (Jacob Lange), who is a fourth-wall-breaking narrator who ends up playing a straight man to the wacky denizens of the writer’s pool. In this case, the show’s star is Max Prince (John Jajewski—game and solid as usual), the too-brainy-for–the-target-audience comic who’s fueling his losing struggle to maintain creative control of his show with tranquilizers and Scotch.
Not surprisingly, the play’s sitcom vibe is heavy, with an emphasis on the wacky hijinks. Most of the writers are based on real-life comedy stars (Rob Reiner, Mel Brooks, etc.), although that distinction, like the jokes that refer to Charles Lindbergh and Gertrude Stein, is likely to be lost on anyone in the audience younger than Gen X. (Make that definitely: One of the local colleges has clearly assigned students to watch the play as a class assignment, and their general silence speaks volumes about whatever remains of the play’s modern influence.)
The acting’s very much the thing here. Most of the cast throws themselves headlong into their portrayals, mining laughs from a script that doesn’t generate nearly as many as it did when it first debuted on Broadway in 1993. (There are plenty of lines that almost scream for director David Pausch to have reached for a good-natured boost from a cheesy, sitcom-quality laugh track.) Britton Rea is hysterical as Milt, an anxiety–riddled head case who uses odd fashion choices (berets! Panama hats!) to stand out. The scene where he has to hide, then jam himself into an ill-fitting replacement suit, 'cause Max doesn’t like white suits, is a hilarious piece of physical comedy. Akshat Sharma’s earnest/witty performance and general appearance recall “The Daily Show”’s Hassan Miniaj. As Kenny, the character based on Neil Simon’s brother, he delivers his zingers with an aloof intellect.
Mark Snowden plays Val, the show’s head writer, with a thick Russian accent that helps put on one of the show’s best gags—Val’s eventually successful efforts to learn to drop a proper American F-bomb. And Casem AbuLughod is impossible to ignore as Ira, a hypochondriacal Jew who’s chronically late and aggressively confrontational.
But the thing is, just like the concept of the wacky neighbor has become woefully cliché, loud and boisterous doesn’t automatically equal funny, even if Simon tends to disagree. Watching Jajewski and AbuLughod’s characters holler and storm across the stage the first couple of times is amusing, but it wears out its welcome quickly.
The play is backdropped against Sen. Joe McCarthy’s reign of Blacklist terror, and while that threat was doubtlessly real at the time, it doesn’t feel especially imposing or imminent here. Neither does the sense that the show is ultimately doomed. It’s essentially a foregone conclusion, (and when you see the writers rehearsing an overlong skit that crosses Julius Caesar with Marlon Brando movies, it’s not all that hard to understand why.)
The play closes with two of the characters exchanging a verbal rimshot, one of those bonhomie gestures that is—like the everybody-laughs scene at the end of the movie Sully—supposed to bring us all in on the joke. In this case, it’s another reminder that the laughter on that 23rd floor has been reduced to an occasional chuckle.