Bah-da-BOOM! That’s the nutshell description of Neil Simon’s “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” the compendium of one-liners sewn tightly into Simon’s great big kiss of a memoir.
What he’s remembering – and kissing – is his time as a young writer on “Your Show of Shows,” the groundbreaking mid-’50s live NBC comedy show that made Sid Casear and his female foil, Imogene Coca, famous. Or in Caesar’s case, wildly famous. He was one of television’s first stars, and he had a coterie of writers like Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, among our first TV-age names in comedy and among our finest.
It’s a coincidence of timing that Bristol Riverside Theatre is producing “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” which opened Thursday night, only weeks after Caesar died last month at age 91. The skit comedy he performed (sometimes along with his writers) for 90 minutes on Saturday evenings was novel and even bizarre, and so magnetic on the still-novel home screens that Broadway producers complained to NBC because Saturday-night ticket sales were lame.
Lame was hardly a word you’d apply to Caesar himself. So I’m not sure why Simon’s tribute creates for us a Caesar-like star named Max Prince, who is the living image of lame – drunk, pill-popping and full of cocky brio yet almost wholly unable to deal with the world. (Caesar did have his problems that came mostly from a rush of fame in a new media age whose power no one could have gauged beforehand.) If Max Prince is brilliant – a genius, his writers believe – it’s hard to see the light he gives off through the armor of buffoonery that is character.
He’s played at Bristol Riverside by David Edwards, who has a Caesar-like hairstyle and performs the role with the face of one of the star’s more clueless characters. Edwards is amusing – “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” doesn’t get much past amusing until a second act with some flash points – and, in an appropriate portrayal, not he’s entirely likable. But he is, as he should be, a force whenever he’s on stage.
“Laughter on the 23rd Floor” is a departure for Neil Simon, whose plays are generally plot-driven comedies written with well-defined characters and without a scintilla of irony. This homage to the early days of TV and, specifically, writing for TV, seems at times little more than an excuse to zing one-liners. It offers one-dimensional characters in a thin plot based solely on irony: As Max Prince’s popularity grows in his free-wheeling show, the network’s corporate mind-set is to reign him in. Given the way Simon paints his fictionalized star, I was beginning to be on the network’s side.
Bristol Riverside artistic director Keith Baker stages “Laughter” to get the most out of it, especially when it becomes more of a romp than what seems like a stand-up comedy competition. Locally-based playwright Bruce Graham appears as the writer Milt, who has the best lines – Graham knows what to do with them – and Benjamin Lloyd grabs the role of the best-drawn writer, the hypochondriac Ira Stone, and squeezes it impressively; Lloyd’s is the evening’s memorable performance.
The other writers are solidly portrayed by Carl N. Wallnau, Megan McDermott, Kenneth Boys and Jason Silverman, and K.O Delmarcelle is the group’s secretary/gopher, a cliché role she plays to a tee. The 23rd floor itself is a sort of New York stereotype office, a huge room with oversized arched windows, attractively designed by Jason Simms.
After you’ve got Neil Simon’s feel for the era that ushered in TV and what it meant to him, check out clips from “Your Show of Shows” on You Tube to see what it meant to America. After that, “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” takes on a context that Simon doesn’t quite provide in his depiction alone.“Laughter on the 23rd Floor” runs through April 13 at Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe St., Bristol. 215-785-0100 or www.brtstage.org.