It may be hard to believe now, but truly great talents once graced the world of television--and viewers across America knew how to appreciate a good gag or a searing drama. Before the era of sitcoms and car chases, before cynical admen took control and cut up the airwaves into half-hour chunks, there really was some intelligence and talent hanging out at the networks. It didn't last long, of course, and to speak of the "golden age" is perhaps to deliver too generous a eulogy for the glossy entertainments that once were beamed out on the tiny silver screen.
Neil Simon, however, remembers the early days of TV one way--fondly. And the author of Brighton Beach Memoirs and Biloxi Blues shares yet another saga from his personal experience in Laughter on the 23rd Floor. The Arvada Center's gangly, loving tribute to the smart-aleck comics of the past needs a lot of work--the timing is off and there are far too many dead spots eating up energy. But given the subject matter, it's not surprising that it's still a funny show.
The play is based on Simon's stint as a sketch writer for comedian Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows, where the guys and dolls on the writing staff would do anything for a laugh. Simon's string of cracks, gibes, gags and one-liners reminds us that some people's minds just work differently. And the whole show reminds us that the celebrated Simon himself never really learned how to write a convincing play. All of his material is clever and intelligent--but every one of his plays feels like a setup for his message. They make you laugh, but none of them looks or feels like real life.
This time around, Simon's story opens on young Lucas (Simon as narrator) who has just six months in which to make good as a writer for Max Prince's TV show. Lucas introduces us to each of the other writers and to Max himself, who's as crazy as a loon. There's only one woman on the team, Carol (played with a terrifically snide sweetness by Jamie Heinlein), and she lets us know that, pregnant as she is through the second act, she wants to be considered a good writer, not a good woman writer. The only other woman in this male world is the secretary, Helen (T.J. Geist, glowing with exuberance), who, naturally, harbors the desire to write comedy.
The staff writers serve comedy and love Max, and the interaction between these very different personalities is what makes us laugh and keeps us caring about this office. Brian is the only Gentile on the team, and a string of skewering slurs slide his way from perpetual hypochondriac Ira. Val (the delightfully volatile Jeffrey Rhys) is a Russian immigrant who languished under Stalin; Milt is a childlike womanizer made lovable by Daymond Caylo; and Kenny (Erik Tieze in another tight, funny performance) is the sensible, intelligent one who gives the team its solid core.
Outside in the real world, Senator Joe McCarthy conducts his witch-hunts, and Max threatens to ridicule him on live TV--certain professional death for him and his whole team. Meanwhile, the greater enemy of the people are the NBC execs, who seem bent on squelching original thought and shoveling hypnotic crap onto the airwaves. They begin squeezing--slashing Max's budget and cutting him down to an hour. We all know what happened to Sid Caesar, and Simon lets us know what it looked like close up.
The very best thing about the show is William Hahn's performance as Max. Hahn does a screamingly funny sendup of Marlon Brando as Julius Caesar that's the high point of the evening and makes the play's most convincing pitch for the merits of early TV.
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As for the warring duo of Brian and Ira, Jamie Milholland makes a fine Irish comic, but Marshall Drew picks a single tone and sends it over the top for most of the show--a big mistake, since hypochondria is only funny when it tells us something real about the character (think of Woody Allen). Simon wrote the character badly enough to begin with, but Drew and director Edith Weiss should have toned him down.
Weiss also should have kept the pace brisker, orchestrated her talented cast with more sensitivity and moved the players around the stage with more grace. The action here is too often clunky, and it's not all Simon's fault, even though he did make the play too long and infused the humor with a kind of joylessness that threatens to become oppressive when the pace bogs down. A killer Marlon Brando sketch notwithstanding, this is no show of shows.
Laughter on the 23rd Floor, through October 13 at the Arvada Center, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada, 431-3939.