Reviewed by Shelly L. Hoffman
Neil Simon, America’s seemingly most prolific and successful playwright, introduced Laughter on the 23rd Floor in 1993 as an homage to the time he spent as a writer (along with the likes of Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, and Woody Allen) on Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows forty years prior. The University of Michigan-Flint’s theatre program opened its stellar production of Laughter Friday night and walking into the theatre was like taking a step back in time, to the golden age of television, when comedy was king.
Theatre-goers are immediately treated to Scenic Designer Lisa Borton’s startling realistic rendering of a 1950s television writing room. The box set fills the vast expanse of the stage and is replete with a windowed reception area where ditzy secretary Helen (Dominique Hinde) is perched and where some great comedic bits happen. Fluorescent lights, cracked and water-stained walls, and radiators complete the scene.
Max Prince (Paul Doctor), the titular center of the weekly comedy show, The Max Prince Show, is under siege. NBC is expanding its programming to more and more homes in the Midwest and Prince’s comedy, from the minds of his writing team, is deemed too highbrow for this growing audience. The network wants Prince to dumb it down and his accountant wants him to make some cutbacks. All this is happening in the shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy’s Communist witch-hunt.
One by one, we meet each of the members of the writing team. We see them through the eyes of Lucas Brickman (Britton Paige), the newest writer, who serves as narrator to the play. Paige brings a pink-cheeked innocence and plausible dialect to the role as he embodies this character meant to be Simon himself.
Matt Coggins portrays the eccentric Milt Fields who sports berets, a cape, and a white suit and spends much of his time hiding behind a potted fern. Coggins is certainly energetic, if not a little overly physical, in his performance.
Lucas Moquin’s entrance as the bombastic Russian émigré, Val Slotsky, adds much energy to the opening scene. Moquin, too, brings a solid dialect. His laugh is infectious and the tension between he and Coggins is robust as their characters spar over the pronunciation of a certain colorful word.
Brian Doyle (Connor Klee) is the writing room’s token gentile who smokes too much and is certain he will sell a screenplay to Hollywood. Brian undergoes a slight transformation and Klee, with some assistance from costuming, handles this with aplomb. Kenny Franks (Joshua Cornea), the “boy genius” and Carol Wyman (Shelby L. Coleman), who brings a woman’s perspective to the writing room, round out this mostly sane grouping of writers. Coleman practically channels Rose Marie in the Dick Van Dyke Show.
Finally, the perpetually late and no-holds-barred hypochondriac, Ira Stone (Chazz Irwin), shows up to aggravate his colleagues. Irwin is a hoot, yet manages to also engender compassion for Stone.
As unique and interesting each of these characters in this strong ensemble cast is, upon the entrance of Paul Doctor as Max Prince they simply become planets orbiting Doctor’s immense gravitational pull. This is a tour d’ force for him. Doctor is at once loud and frenetic as well as somber and morose, capturing every angle of Prince with exceptional comic timing.
The young cast shows a certain level of maturity and control in their handling of not only the piece but some very slight flubs and malfunctions. Their reactions to these miscues were not the least bit gratuitous nor did they distract or detract from the great work being done and served only to heighten the comedy.
Director William Irwin notes in an online interview that “[t]he ability to make someone laugh is truly a noble skill . . . . Getting an audience to laugh means that you’ve united a group of strangers and provided a tonic for their troubles.” Professor Irwin and his student-actors fully possess this noble skill and, indeed, provide a delicious tonic.
Laughter on the 23rd Floor continues its run Saturday, March 28th, 7:30 pm and Sunday, March 29th, 2:00 pm and the following weekend, Friday, April 3rd, and Saturday, April 4th at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $10 and $8 and can be reserved online at http://boxoffice.printtixusa.com/universitymichigan/eventcalendar or by phone at 810-237-6520 or 810-237-6522. It should be noted the production contains a plethora of expletives that may not be suitable for more delicate ears.