Back in the early 1990s, Neil Simon debuted a play about his days working in TV back in the 1950s. Laughter on the 23rd Floor was a clever tribute to comedy writing that was a precursor for Tina Fey’s beloved, long-running TV sitcom 30 Rock. Simon is best-known for helping to define contemporary comedy with Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple and Last of the Red Hot Lovers. There’s a clean sense of construction about Simon’s earlier work. The comedy comes from the heart of honest characters with a little bit of craziness thrown-in for comedic effect.
In Laughter, Simon populates an entire comedic ensemble with characters who all have more than a bit of madness within them. As a result, it’s a lot more fun than most of Simon’s comedy. Directed by Edward Morgan, the Next Act production brings together an appealing mixing of talents from various ends of the Milwaukee theatre community to conjure a sense of the whimsically unpredictable that taps a wild comedic energy.
A clean-shaven Zach Thomas Woods plays a young writer named Lucas who has just been hired to work on a very popular variety show on NBC. Woods is a charming emotional center to the play in the role of a young writer Simon based on himself in the era in which he was working on Your Show of Shows. Every character in the writer’s room is based on actual legends of comedy who worked for the show like Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner and Sid Caesar.
Next Act’s David Cecsarini has a charming instability about him in the role of the show’s host Max Prince (based on Caesar.) The role would be a challenge to anyone. The rest of the writers are paid to be funny to make a living. There’s a practicality to their madness. Prince is a paranoid iconoclast who has been driven into a very strange place psychologically as a result of his massive success. Cecsarini finds a way to make a totally shrewd, psychologically scattered psyche seem perfectly natural and totally rational in and within its own frame of reference. Cecsarini is embracing the character’s madness with a very sophisticated understanding of the inner dynamics of the character’s insanity. It’s a deeply engrossing performance.
The rest of the cast features a scattering of some great local comedy talent. Karen Estrada is a very adult presence in the room as Carol--one of the few women who were able to make it in TV writing at the time. Simon’s attempt to deliver some of the challenges of a woman in a man’s world feel a bit weak, but Estrada is able to sell the character’s formidability so well that the character works even through the more cringe-inducing moments of a very successful male writer trying to write from the perspective of a woman who would have had. to be a LOT more clever than he was to be in the same room as him back in the 1950s.
The rest of the ensemble handles itself quite well. Local comedy veteran Dylan Bolin has sharp timing and delivery as a writer who is totally confident that he will be able to get a career rolling in Hollywood. Seth K. Hale carries a crisp wit about him as s clever guy based in part on Carl Reiner. Rick Pendzich is a smart slouch as Milt--a funny guy who would be totally unequipped to handle any serious job for very long. Mohammad N. Elbsat lends an intensity to the comedy as a Russian immigrant who has mastered the nimble perspicacity needed to land the miracle of a TV writing job in America.
Next Act’s production of Laughter on the 23rd Floor runs through Dec. 15 at the Next Act Theatre on 255 S. Water St. For more information, visit Next Act online.