This play provides a sparkling dilemma. Comedy has a very clear structure. The world of the play begins out of joint: the jealous husband suspects the faithful wife, the stubborn father has come under the influence of a charlatan trickster. Something is wrong with the way things are. This leads to chicanery which leads to everything coming out right in the end. That’s a comedy.
That’s were LAUGHTER ON THE 23RD FLOOR challenges us. It’s by Neil Simon. It’s based on his stint as a writer on Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows and Caesar’s Hour in the 1950s. The word “laughter” is in the title. And it is not a comedy.
I mention this at the top because about five minutes into the play, a small, unhappy voice behind us whispered, “Mommy, I’m bored.” Ten minutes later, a mother and two children under 12 left.
There are many, many fine, raucously funny moments in the play which are realized to full effect by the strong cast of this complex offering. The play, however, is a classical tragedy. An heroic figure with a tragic flaw makes a mistake of hubris and is humbled, evoking our pity and terror. That is the structure of this play. It just happens to be about comedy.
And, like all good classical art, it offers us instruction and delight. In fact, the delight is the instruction. We laugh until our dorsals beg for kindness or at least liniment. Joseph Perignat, as Max Prince, the character loosely based on Sid Caesar, gives us a saw-voiced, larger-than-life, nobly bewildered god of a man who turns every scrap of pain and confusion he feels into chokingly funny stuff. His pain is our delight. That is the lesson.
Mr. Perignat and Mark Swift, as Lucas Brickman, the first-person voice of the play, give new meaning to the word “awkward” as they face each other, established star and neophyte writer, alone for the first time together in the writers’ room. Their embarrassed chuckling equals the audience’s paroxysms of mirth so intense as to be chiropractic at times .
Brett Molotsky as Brian Doyle and John Pinto as Ira Stone burn up the stage individually. Mr. Molotsky’s revelation of the exact nature and location of the script he’s just sold to Hollywood leaves us gasping. And Mr. Pinto’s entrances with a growing series of dire illnesses from which he suffers puts us on the floor.
But together they create a bonfire of the insanities. When the scene is between the two of them, they are at each other like roosters in rut, which leaves us guffawed breathless and amazed. The two actors are showing us animus in character as real as any tragedy could ever hope for, and we’re laughing so loudly we almost can’t hear them. The whole play is built of sweetly ironic moments like that.
Each character has a distinct style, and each character has a deep pain covered by using that style to evoke the laughter of others before the pain becomes too real. Carol Wyman, given to us with fabulous physicality by Alana Caraccio, is a ground-breaking feminist before the concept was born. Her demon is the need to prove herself by standing as an equal in a room full of raunchy men.
Ms. Caraccio plays with wonderfully physical comic invention. You don’t want to miss her painful, pregnant waddle or her attempt to help prevent Max Prince from strangling Ira Stone. That stage picture in itself is worth the price of admission.
In fact, that moment gives us the entire metaphor of the play in a single picture. Stone is sprawled across the ottoman squawking. But he’s not really in distress. Prince is on top of him with hands around Stone’s neck. But he’s not really throttling. The rest of the writers have arrayed themselves around in a perfect stage dispersal, taking positions of intervention. But they’re not really intervening. There’s nothing dangerous going on.
These are people who are constantly playing to an imaginary audience. When something occurs, they don’t respond directly to it as much as quickly figure what the comic potential of the moment is and what their character ought to be doing in it and where. Then they take their places in the constant skit of their lives.
Prince isn’t choking Stone. He’s presenting a comic representation of the rage he feels for the audience all the characters on stage imagine is watching them constantly. The writers are completing the stage picture for that audience. And we, the actual audience, are the irony. We are watching them. There’s a shimmering, precious quality to moments like those. And this production has an elegant sufficiency of them.
It is not a perfect production. It runs 25 minutes too long. The first act drags until Stone enters.
And I need to tell Mr. Swift a thing which I hope he takes in the spirit of kindness with which it is offered. Your intentions are clear. Your physicality is fine. Your comic timing is there. But I only understood every second or third word you spoke. Your diction is very much in need of work. If you did not have the talent to be on that stage, I would not trouble to point this out. Practice your speech and you will tear up the stage with this role.
The play presents the story of a family which has made function of dysfunction. Carping, jibing, wrestling, fighting, and loving like any dysfunctional family, they turn their pain into award-winning, top-rated comic entertainment.
And as we leave the theatre, we realize that we’ve just had rollicking, if muscularly difficult, fun at the expense of a man of genius who destroys himself on the horns of his own talent and the roomful of injured misfits powerless to help him to salvation. That is the point of the play. It is an exploration of the relationship between comedy and pain. It is an instruction devoutly to be wished. See it at the Kelsey. Don’t bring your children.
LAUGHTER ON THE 23RD FLOOR
by Neil Simon
Directed by John M. Maurer
Through February 5, 2012
At the Kelsey Theatre
1200 Old Trenton Rd
West Windsor, NJ 08550