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Theater Review: “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” at Keegan Theatre

A fine ensemble cast brings Neil Simon’s delightful comedy about the early days of television to life.

Kevin Hasser, Bradley Foster Smith, and Ray Ficca in Laughter on the 23rd Floor. Photograph by Jim Coates.

Young writer Neil Simon got a very lucky break when he and his brother Danny were discovered by comic genius Sid Caesar. They were writing comedy scripts for a summer resort when Caesar saw their show and hired the Simons to join the writing team on Your Show of Shows in the early ’50s. Decades before Saturday Night Live, Caesar and company were inventing political sketch comedy. The writers faced network pressures to dumb down the show, as well as a growing right-wing political climate fueled by Senator Joe McCarthy. Laughter on the 23rd Floor is based on Simon’s 30 Rock–esque experiences on the show.

Lucas Brickman ( John Loughney) the new kid on the writing staff, is clearly the young Neil Simon. He joins a crew of neurotic, high-strung, quick-witted writers trying to please both the brilliant, pill-popping star of The Max Prince Show and the network. As they bounce ideas off the walls and each other, their personal clashes are always clever and sometimes downright hysterical. This is an ensemble piece. Although only one member of the cast, Ray Ficca, is an Equity actor, every member holds his or her own to make the play work. Michael Innocenti is particularly appealing as the hypochondriac Ira Stone who never met a symptom he couldn’t love. Ficca’s Max Prince is fascinating to watch, even when he is self-destructing. His take on Marlon Brando playing Julius Caesar with a little Stanley Kowalski mixed in is worth the price of admission alone.

Director Colin Smith recognizes that the cleverness of the dialogue is the play’s strength and doesn’t add a lot of stage business to interfere. There is a wonderful bit where Simon delivers a lesson on comedy writing. Two writers engage in a word duel to see who can come up with the funniest name for a Chinese Jew for a skit. And the set, a writers’ room decked out with a castoff collection of mismatched furniture, adds to the authenticity of the dingy surroundings.

I have only two minor quibbles with this very good show. First, it would have been nice to have some information about playwright Neil Simon in the playbill, to provide context to the play. Laughter on the 23rd Floor stands on its own, but knowing about Simon’s background adds a dimension to the work. Second, I admit that watching the writers onstage devouring bagels and onion rolls with cream cheese throughout the first act created an incredible appetite for this native New Yorker. If they offered real New York onion rolls at the concession counter during intermission, Keegan could make a fortune.

Laughter on the 23rd Floor is at the Keegan Theatre through February 18. Tickets ($30 to 3$5) are available through the theater’s website.