Neil Simon’s “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” is an autobiographical comedy inspired by Simon’s early days as a writer on “Your Show of Shows,” Sid Caesar’s television comedy-variety show that ran from 1950 to 1954. Set in Manhattan in 1953 in the writers’ room for such a show, “Laughter” stars a central Sid Caesar-esque character named Max Prince. The other characters represent his staff, who try to outdo each other cracking wise and preparing the next script.
In the current Keegan Theatre production of “Laughter,” Ray Ficca is well cast as the larger-than-life, eccentric Prince, who mimics Marlon Brando and does battle with the NBC executives who are uneasy about his unconventional comedy. The writers are like Max’s children, who worry about Max as he ends each evening with pills and four jiggers of scotch.
Lucas Brickman, Simon’s alter-ego, is well played by John Loughney. Brickman introduces each character in the team and gives insight into the infighting and goofy antics of what goes on in the writers’ room.”
If you think it sounds like a thin premise for a comedy, think how funny “30 Rock” would be if it included some of the extraordinary 1950s comics who wrote for Caesar, like Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks. Of course the names are changed to protect the innocent. Kenny Franks (Kevin Hasser) is the calm and collected wit. Ira Stone (Michael Innocenti) is a maniacal hypochondriac.
Milt Fields is portrayed by the ever-entertaining Matt Dewberry. Bradley Foster Smith is a dark shadow as Val, the Russian writer whose gloomy perspective is funny just by contrast in this roomful of buoyancy. Dan Van Why is amusing as Brian Doyle, who eventually makes it big in Hollywood. As Carol Wyman, the only female on staff, Brianna Letourneau brilliantly defends her desire to be a good writer, not a woman writer.
Under the direction of Colin Smith, the many laughs arrive fast and furiously. But Simon wasn’t just drawing back the curtain so people could giggle at what happened in the writers’ room. He also made barbed comments about Senator McCarthy, the hydrogen bomb and NBC’s decision to cut the budget of Caesar’s edgy show because they preferred the safer climate of “Leave it to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best.”
Samina Vieth’s set is a pleasantly open room with doors on both sides and a window in the middle, showing a New York skyline. The room is full of 1950s furniture, including a desk, which is really a pedestal for an old manual typewriter.
Smith and his talented actors capture the mood of the time and place and provide delightful insight to a small world that taught the world how to laugh a lot.