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An extended act of hero worship masquerading as a laff riot, Neil Simon’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor is filled with one-liners, peopled entirely by folks who either write or want to write jokes, and fairly accurately reflects the three years when many of the gods of 20th century comedy—including Simon, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, and Larry Gelbart—regularly assembled in one room to help make Sid Caesar the funniest man on television.
The evening looks, moves, and spouts punchlines like an ensemble piece as it peers into the writer’s room of a 90-minute program much like Caesar’s Your Show of Shows. But minions—even when they’re gods in training—remain minions, and Simon’s play is ruled firmly by its Caesar, here rechristened Max Prince (Ray Ficca), who rides herd over his writing stable with ferocity, flop sweat, and on occasion, pants ’round his ankles. As a comic creation, he’s significantly more intriguing than the play that surrounds him, partly because the plot turns on such uninvolving questions as whether the network will cut the show’s budget, and partly because Simon’s too caught up in admiration to parse what makes the guy tick.
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Though they’ve only been handed one comic attribute apiece, the others are fine— John Loughney spouting exposition as Simon’s stand-in, Michael Innocenti blustering as a Mel Brooksian hypochondriac, and Bradley Foster Smith as a Russian-accented head writer making the strongest impressions—but even with Colin Smith staging things at a gallop, this stable of writers is laboring at a disadvantage in an evening so freighted with idolatry that it can’t help sagging when Prince isn’t on stage. He rails and cajoles—and in the play’s funniest moment does a nifty impression of Caesar doing Brando doing Marc Antony doing in Julius Caesar—but never gets a chance to turn an evening of scattered comic bits into something more substantial, the way Simon’s aging vaudevillians do in The Sunshine Boys.
That said, Prince is great fun to watch, and for Keegan Theatre’s production, Ficca’s elected to play him at a slightly different rhythm than his cohorts. His speech is either rushed or halting, his eyes piercing or unfocused, his gait at times unremarkable, at times oddly chickenlike. Posed a question, he’ll either shred it with a wisecrack or let it hang in the air for long moments before he deigns to respond. He can be a total sweetheart but the framed holes in the wall attest to his temper. His writers are understandably terrified of him, even as they revere him. He’s their meal ticket, and every one of them aspires to be him.
In real life, several of them managed to eclipse their mentor in terms of popularity—Simon on Broadway, Brooks and Allen in film, and Gelbart on TV—but ask any of them who the real genius was, and—as Simon does in Laughter on the 23rd Floor, they’d all hail Caesar.