“Laughter” at the Morgan-Wixson
How funny is a group of television comedy writers trying to be funny? Not half as entertaining as The Santa Monica Theatre Guild’s production of Neil Simon’s “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” which runs through February 14 at the Morgan-Wixson Theatre in Santa Monica. Directed by Lewis Hauser and produced by Len Magnus, the show transports the audience to 1953, the 23rd floor of a building in New York City where seven comedy writers gather to create sketches for The Max Prince Show, starring the high-strung, lovable lunatic Max Prince. Based on Simon’s early experience as a writer for Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows,” “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” (1993) captures the creative antics characteristic of some of Simon’s comic collaborators-among them Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner and Larry Gelbart. The Simon character, Lucas (Chris Kuechenmeister), introduces his fellow jokesters to the audience as they enter the writers’ room one-by-one, each with his (or her) own quirky appearance and persona-not to mention their diverse cultural backgrounds, which are the root of many jokes. We meet Milt (Jeff Witzke), Val (Dennis Delsing), Brian (Neilsen Scott Montgomery), Kenny (Chris McCann) and Carol (L. Kate Siegel), who prepare us for the entrance of the biggest little man behind the curtain, the Napoleon-meets-Woody Allen character modeled on Sid Caesar-Max Prince (Barry Silver). Max must tell his writers, whom he later calls his “flesh and blood,” that the NBC network wants to cut the budget and length of the program because the material is “too sophisticated” for the average American audience. Yet the NBC executives aren’t the only ones with a black list: Sen. Joseph McCarthy has called World War II Allied commander Gen. George Marshall a Communist, and this news equally enrages Max, who refers to McCarthy as “Senator McNutcake.” The team of writers rolls with the punches (literally), sometimes cracking five jokes a minute in attempt to lighten the mood, boost their egos or conceal their insecurities. Even the whiny writer/hypochondriac, Ira (Patrick T. Rogers), who stumbles into the session tardy, as usual, spits out his share of jokes. While it takes the first act to really get to know these characters and their relationship with each other, the second act (seven months later) is faster-paced and funnier, even with a slower, more drugged-out Max. We finally get to see the writers collaborate and act out the movie version of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” starring Marlon Brando, with Max as Julius Caesar. Here, the acting and direction capture the climactic high of comedy writers fighting for a laugh-the cast gets several with this scene. Barry Silver’s strong performance as Max reveals an underlying fatherly love for his writers despite his neurotic behavior. He gives the audience an inside look at the pain behind the laughter (“Nobody hates Max the way Max hates Max”) and wins our sympathy with his unfaltering loyalty to his band of comics. In an exhilarating moment, Ira gets down on his knees to teach Max the “Roma” number and before long Max breaks into song joined by his ensemble of writers. The cast pulls off these sudden spurts of collaborative harmony with great pizzazz. The contrast between the characters’ quick wit and light joking, and the dark political news about McCarthy/blacklisting/Russia’s H-bomb, which we get from characters as well as the voiceovers between scenes, successfully creates a build-up of tension on the 23rd floor. Kenny’s earlier declaration that “maybe we’ll never have this much fun in our entire lives” rings truer than ever by the end of the production. The impressive one-set stage (designed by William Wilday)-mustard yellow, mauve and beige walls, and classic wood furniture-evokes the 1950s to a T, as do the stylish costumes (Karen Jay), which perfectly characterize each writer. Jeff Witzke as Milt is hilarious in his white suit, and Max’s secretary Helen (Brittny Roberts) creates a character that matches her flowery, bouncy dress-an eager wannabe comedy writer who can’t quite crack a joke. In an environment where being an “honorary lunatic” is the highest form of respect, Simon’s characters are a famous tribute to some of the greatest comedy writers and to the gut-wrenching comic process. The production’s poignant moments are interspersed among endless wisecracks and ba-dum-bums because, after all, laughter and tears often share the same space. Performances run Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m., and a special Saturday matinee January 31 at 2 p.m. Tickets cost $15 for adults, $12 for seniors and $10 for students, with group reservations available. The Morgan-Wixson Theatre is located at 2627 Pico. Contact: 828-7519.
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