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A year ago I walked into "The Odd Couple," the spring opener for the Flat Rock Playhouse, expecting to spend two hours wracked by gales of laughter. The show was kind of a dud.
This year I walked into "Laughter on the 23rd Floor" with lower expectations. The show was, at least to me, an obscure title. It was written by Neil Simon, yes, but I figured even a great comedy writer could have created a clunker or two. Maybe this one was on sale.
I knew that "Laughter" was an autobiographical story based on Simon's early days as a comedy writer for Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows," the groundbreaking comedy sketch show that the Playhouse had honored in its original tribute, "Our Show of Shows," two years ago. The premise seemed promising but I wondered whether a live-on-stage version of the great Dick Van Dyke show could sustain the audience for two hours.
I had never seen Nick Santa-Maria, whose name sounded like the answer on a geography quiz for eighth graders in California or the sea-going conveyance for the navigationally challenged sailor from 1492 or a clever twist on that jolly Dec. 25 visitor. But there I go, trying to make a joke of everything, and not nearly as well as the cast of "Laughter on the 23rd Floor," which I can happily report is a very funny and energetic opener for the Playhouse's "Season of Laughter and Love."
As far as I know this is the first time the Playhouse has ever attached a theme to a whole season. If "Laughter" sets the bar for quality and energy, Playhouse patrons are in for many treats.
The team of comedy writers — "all young guys and they made more than the governor of New York," the young narrator Lucas (Ben Rosenbach) tells us —crack wise, one-up one another and volley insults like a Beijing ping-pong match.
The unmistakable dramatic tension is caused — and powerfully stretched taut — by Santa-Maria, as Max, the show's beleaguered director.
Max's show is an hour-and-a-half (Sid Caesar) comedy. It has had popular success but in the era of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Red Scare NBC is breathing down Max's neck to make budget cuts and dull the show's sharper edges.
The play opens with Milt, played by James Beaman, and Lucas in the office early. They're supposed to be writing comedy sketches but very little writing goes on, given the worry about Max and his mental state (not helped by his daily cocktail of three powerful sleeping pills chased with four jiggers of scotch).
Max says the pills are nothing.
"Remember when I gave you a half a pill. Did anything happen?" he asks Carol (Amy Toporek), the only female writer.
"I don't remember," she says. "I slept for nine days."
You gotta listen fast because the actors deliver the jokes in a rapid-fire battle of wits.
Ira Stone, played by Gary Littman, is late every day and always suffering from a new life-threatening ailment. His goal in life, Lucas tells us, is to have a virus named after him. His entrances are a hoot.
As Kenny, Playhouse favorite Scott Treadway is not in the over-the-top role audiences have come to expect. He's the voice of reason, trying to protect Max, and trying to keep the writing team focused.
Max is the troubled and volcanic motor of this madhouse. When he's on stage you cannot help but focus on him. Max is torn to bits, heart and soul, by the pettiness, cowardice and betrayal of the big bosses of NBC.
"NBC is not a people," he roars when his writers ask why he doesn't try to talk with them. "They're not like us. They wear their socks up to their neck. You can't talk to them."
Santa-Maria is a great physical comedian, whether he is smashing his fist through a wall, grabbing his crotch in an extended and painful-to-watch dramatization of the Corporate pressure, falling asleep standing up or quietly seething. He's the watched pot that does boil.
The ensemble cast — also featuring Bob Ader as Val, Adrienne Griffiths as Helen, Max's assistant; Michael MacCauley as Brian, a big-dreaming Irishman who's the only Gentile on the crew — adds the right touch to Max's spiral into a kind of madness. The writers are alarmed and concerned and always supportive yet lucky for us never bereft of a wisecrack.
As Director Michael Kostroff observes in the playbill notes, "Laughter on the 23rd Floor" reminds us that television's early golden age — written in rooms like the one portrayed here, occupied by great comic creators like Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Lucille Kallen, Mel Tolkin, Larry Gelbart and Simon — "assumed a certain level of intelligence on the part of the audience" and delivered "smart, silly and genuinely funny comedy."
"Thanks to Neil Simon," Kostroff adds, "we can still visit such a time."
To get there, drive down Greenville Highway to the Playhouse in Flat Rock.
You'll see an amazing performance by Santa-Maria and the rest of the happy, neurotic and truly funny ensemble.