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The Writers’ Room was on the 23rd floor of Rockefeller Center. Neil Simon’s clever, high-speed comedy at the Walnut Street Theatre is about the group of wildly talented joke and skit writers for Your Show of Shows, now a classic of early television. Stuffed into that Writers’ Room were Mel Brooks, Selma Diamond, Carl Reiner, and many more—including a young Neil Simon. In the Walnut’s production, they are portrayed by a wildly talented group of actors. Simon, the playwright, becomes our narrator, Lucas, played with sweet, deferential charm by Davy Raphaely..
It’s 1953; Sid Caesar—here called Max-- is the king of comedy as well as a pill-popping drunk and and the star of the show they’re creating. But to director Frank Ferrante’s credit, Max -- played by Ferrante in a sensationally manic performance -- is not the star of this terrific ensemble. Each character has their own perfectly developed schtick: Steve Perlmutter, Tony Freeman, Anthony Lawton, Jesse Bernstein, Leah Walton, Ellie Mooney, and Scott Greer.
Elements of comedy style
There are bagels, there are shoes thrown out of windows; there are Russian accents, hypochondria, ethnic insults, and weird jokes, angry jokes, miserable jokes.
There are lines like, “All humor is based on hostility. That’s why World War II was so funny.”
But then, “I fell asleep the other night with my eyes open. I thought I was dreaming about the ceiling.”
And, “Nobody hates Max like Max hates Max.”
“I love it when you talk like Gertrude Stein.”
And there is low humor. Why do I always laugh when people throw food?
Joy and pain
Lurking at the core of the corps is fear, and lurking at the margins of our amusement is an unexpected relevance. The protest march against Donald Trump's visit on Thursday had just ended when Laughter on the 23rd Floor began at the Walnut Street Theatre. Who expected relevance from this entertaining 1993 favorite? Endless surprises these days.
If there’s an heir to the TV comedy throne held by Your Show of Shows from 1950 to 1954, it is Saturday Night Live. Katie Rich’s suspension from the writing corps as a result of her tweet about Donald Trump’s son Barron startlingly parallels the writers’ fears about the McCarthy hearings targeting people with access to the public, blacklisting many writers and actors. Consider new White House strategist Stephen Bannon’s warning, “The media should just keep its mouth shut.” Bad-a-bum.
What, When, Where
Laughter on the 23rd Floor. By Neil Simon. Frank Ferrante directed. Through March 5, 2017, at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. (215) 574-3550 or walnutstreettheatre.org.
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