By Carolyn Hayes
Playwright Neil Simon wrote the semiautobiographical “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” about his work in the golden age of television when he found himself working among the ranks of some of the most formidable forces in comedy. Now at the Jewish Ensemble Theatre, director Lynnae Lehfeldt and a crack cast of nine has crafted his reverent recollection into a show about the miracle of a peerless creative team.
Simon based the play on his time spent as a junior writer on Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows”; accordingly, the entire comedy is confined to the writer’s room of a fictitious NBC variety program. The workplace is peopled with an extraordinary assembly of characters, including wizened Kenny (Ron Williams), philandering Milt (David Meese), upward climber Brian (Andrew Huff), token lady-writer Carol (Allie McCaw), and wheezing hypochondriac Ira (Rob Pantano), under the barking profanity of thickly accented head writer Val (Wayne David Parker). This fertile array of personalities is bookended by star Max Prince (Joseph Albright), whose manifold roles as talent, producer, and primary buffer between staff and corporate brass has left him hyperactively paranoid, and saucer-eyed secretary Helen (Julia Gray), whose literal-minded subservience grounds the galloping creative types. Completing the roman a clef feel are confessional asides by Lucas (Matthew Turner Shelton), representing Simon himself as a daunted newbie desperate to prove worthy among these comedy kings.
Set in 1953, the vanguard of the variety format, the production is anchored by sharp, bright design. Jeremy Barnett crafts a hodgepodge primary/secondary color playground of an open office set, speckled with a treasure trove of properties and dressing by Diane Ulseth. Well-placed wild accessories flesh out the sometimes formal, sometimes flashy business dress of costumer Mary Copenhagen. Sound design by Hank Bennett features the tinny timbre of peppy numbers of the era, the kind of music that would be well at home in a jovial television atmosphere. This is an atmosphere specifically and smartly designed to keep levity alive and well.
It stands to reason, then, that there is humor aplenty in this telling; an eight-way tennis match of zingers would be an apt description. But although it goes unspoken, what is just as important is what comedy represents to this room. There is safety in laughter, a fact that becomes all the more vital against the encroaching calamities of the outside world. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Communist witch-hunt and attendant Hollywood blacklisting brings fear close to home, and the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg takes on particular meaning in a primarily Jewish workplace. The progression of the play’s two acts also charts the changing relationship of network to talent, as the show is shortened, its budget slashed, and its future incessantly jeopardized. For a program expected to lampoon the issues of the day, even under the implicit threat of censorship by a nervous network, personal and topical issues converge into an eddy of rising tensions that color the bubble of the creative process and keep the conversation topics flying.
For all the one-liners, the production doesn’t curry outbursts of laughter; rather, the comic baseline is high and sustained amid zooming beats and breezily ping-ponging focus. There are standout moments for each of the characters, among them the fallout of a regretful wardrobe choice by outsized Meese, and McCaw’s confident boys’-club assertion as she works harder to hold her own in a world where her sex is a perceived handicap. Similarly, Albright’s method of disintegrating under pressure – resolving to go ever bigger until he’s forced to go home – commands the busy room’s attention with its addled charm. Persnickety Ira steals a scene or two with his detailed medical-emergency contingency plans; in him, Pantano has crafted the kind of delightfully unpleasant character everyone hates to love. These warring egos of just-barely friendly competition over what’s funny all but drown out Lucas’s meek place as the rightful protagonist; Lehfeldt’s direction seems less concerned with storytelling through a single lens, focusing instead on the group as a whole. Other than the textual hiccup of the suddenly extraneous narration (and obligatory lighting cues by designer Jon Weaver), the choice is a strong one for the unparalleled group atmosphere it engenders.
Ultimately, to its great credit, this production’s biggest strength is its ensemble. It takes just the right blend of people to work this splendidly together, and the result is creative magic, both here and in the context of the play. To work in an atmosphere as special as the one in “Laughter” is rare enough; to recognize it, accurately memorialize it, and do it justice in the retelling are wholly other feats – all of which are handily achieved here, each more remarkable than the last.
‘Laughter on the 23rd Floor’
The Jewish Ensemble Theatre Company at DeRoy Theatre on the campus of the Jewish Community Center, 6600 W. Maple Rd., West Bloomfield. Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday through Nov. 11. 120 minutes. $38-45. 248-788-2900. http://www.JETTheatre.org