Ba-dum-bum: North Coast Repertory Theatre’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor
Article by Celia Gold
Neil Simon’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor has all the makings of a great tragedy: writers living the precarious life that artists lead, in the context of an era rife with racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism and set against a backdrop of good ol’ fashioned fascism a la Senator Joseph McCarthy.
Oh, and it’s a comedy. Set in 1953 and famously based on Simon’s experience writing alongside comic heavyweights such as Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Woody Allen, and Selma Diamond (to name a few) for Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows,” the play portrays a group of first- and second-generation Jewish comics (save for one) doing what they love as one big, probably moderately happy and no less dysfunctional family.
In North Coast Repertory Theatre’s current production, the comic writers’ incessant one-upping of each other’s punchlines takes center stage. Frenetic slapstick makes a cameo as well, particularly in the forms of David Ellenstein’s terrifying yet endearing Max Prince (based on Caesar) and Omri Schein’s dogmatically hypochondriacal Ira (based on Brooks and not Allen, as one might suppose).
While there’s something to be said for historical accuracy, the production adheres so strictly to a certain brand of over-determined midcentury comedic style that the play’s nuances become obfuscated. It may be worth noting here that in what I’ve seen of YSoS, nuance and deadpan were well-utilized tools. More importantly, in Simon’s play, humor servers various functions: respite from the world outside the writer’s room, wry critique, passive aggression, wish fulfillment, and sometimes outward aggression. In NCRT’s iteration, each punchline is treated with the same weight and pride upon delivery that humor’s ability to do much more than entertain is neglected, ironically constituting a series of missed opportunities.
Still, the infusion of nostalgia, whether heavy handed or not, serves a function, too. The audience at the Sunday matinee I attended was comprised primarily of folks who likely watched “Your Show of Shows” and who certainly lived through the chilling threat McCarthy wielded until his censure in 1954. In this audience, the performance was well received; there were laughs in all the right places. Although the period harkened to in Laughter equated to something decidedly other than halcyon days, it seemed the brief trip back in time was nonetheless largely embraced.
In an easy-to-miss moment that encompasses the multivalence of comedy and the layers of performance in the show (actors playing comedy writers based on comedy writers and actors, in a show set behind the scenes but performed as a play onstage), Ira crystallizes just why humor is so elusive, so fascinating, and always more than its surface. When dire straits have hit the group and denial is no longer a viable coping mechanism, the pathologically late Ira addresses the team, “Oh, this is funny. This is The Human Comedy. This is Reality. I would have come early for this.” If the choice to ham it up was a deliberate, performative one on the part of Artistic Director Ellenstein and Director Tom Markus then the implicit argument seems to be that humor functions best when it distracts. It helps sometimes to be reminded that, try as we might to sidestep them, the traces of reality are everywhere. Ultimately, I fall in Ira’s camp: laughter may be the best medicine, but ailing from irony is a lot more interesting.
North Coast Repertory Theatre’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor runs through November 20th. For more information CLICK HERE.