REVIEW BY ANDERS BACK
For Digital First Media
For the past half-century the business of television has generally been golden for the conglomerates that own and executives who run it. TV audiences often ended up with the dross.
Yet during those years were two very distinct Golden Ages of Television that benefitted both owners and viewers; one that began over a decade ago and is still going strong and the other, more mythic one that flourished in the mid-1950’s. The 1950’s Golden Age can still be witnessed in black and white recordings of shows shot in old theaters converted to studios and festooned with cables, lights, sets, cameras and anxious actors performing live in front of millions.
That shimmering era, the revered time of Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, Jackie Gleason, Ernie Kovacs and other kings of comedy gets hit with a big pie in the face by playwright Neil Simon in his 1993 hit “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” now onstage at the venerable Walnut Street Theatre. Simon says yes, it was a good time for writers and actors but a Golden Age it wasn’t. Simon shows why in this nostalgic, funny, occasionally pointed and even sharp critique of an era and a style that is gone but recalled to life whenever a bunch of underpaid and unappreciated writers meet to hammer out a script.
The Walnut Street has been home to many theatrical firsts. Simon’s first full length play “Come Blow Your Horn” premiered at the Walnut in 1961 and was a great success, ensuring a move to Broadway and a run of nearly two years that launched Simon’s career.
Laughter is in part a reminiscence of Simon’s days as a young comedy writer on Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows” when he worked with the best comedy writers of the era: Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, Mel Tolkin, Lucille Kallen and others. Several of the writers are recognizable in the characters Simon has created, including his younger self as the narrator.
If, as one writer comments “all humor is based on hostility” then there’s humor to spare in the writers’ room of “The Max Prince Show” in March 1953 when the world seemed to be rejecting the happy Pax Americana that followed World War II. Stalin is dead but the Soviets are about to test a hydrogen bomb. Senator Joe McCarthy (“A United States Senator who giggles like Porky the Pig” as one comic says) is unmasking communists everywhere and there are rumors of an entertainment “blacklist” of suspected Red sympathizers.
What’s much worse for the writers is that television is getting into more homes and public tastes are changing. Humor based on literature, politics and satire is no longer hot. And satire is what Max does best.
Writing those jokes is the job of Lucas (the likeable Simon stand-in played by Davy Raphaely), Carol the only female writer on the show (Leah Walton strong and cynical in an underwritten part where she must also become very pregnant), Val the excitable Russian who channels Mel Tolkin (Tony Freeman), Brian the cynical and ambitious Irishman (local Philly star Anthony Lawton), Kenny the doomsayer (the Larry Gelbart avatar played by Jesse Bernstein), Milt the questionable fashion plate (by Steve Perlmutter) and Ira, the Mel Brooks stand-in and hypochondriac (a wonderfully physical, farcical performance by Philly stage favorite Scott Greer).
All are anxious about how the world news and the “industry” changes will affect their boss. The brilliant but somewhat mad Max has been popping pills and making maudlin midnight phone calls to the writers as he tries to figure out how to save the show — over budget because of Max’s insistence on decent pay for staff and quality sets. The NBC bosses know what to do — save money by firing one employee from each area (including the writers)! Will Max have a nervous breakdown and put everyone out of work? Or simply punch a hole in the wall of the writer’s room?
Director and actor Frank Ferrante returns to the Walnut after 20 years to reprise both roles and directs and plays Max with a lithe physicality and barely-restrained mania to match Sid Caesar with a touch of Jackie Gleason’s famous eye pops and slow burns. The simple set by designer David Gordon is suitably shabby with a dash of linoleum and the costuming by Mark Mariani is an explosion of wide lapels, pleated trousers and suits of double-breasted splendor.
This may be the best comic ensemble onstage in the region this season, and though the one-liners are surprisingly few (“I offered to take her on a second honeymoon,” says Milt about his estranged wife. “She said she didn’t like the first one that much.”) this bunch works together like an ace shortstop and first baseman.
It all comes together in but a single quick sketch rehearsal the audience gets to see featuring Max as “Marlon Brandon” — a satire on the 1953 Julius Caesar movie starring Marlon Brando as Mark Antony. Ferrante’s parody of The Mumbler (as Brando had been, rather unfairly, branded) doing Shakespeare is the highlight of the show.