The play's characters rely on pseudonyms that thinly obscure the renowned comic writers of the 1950s.
  • The play's characters rely on pseudonyms that thinly obscure the renowned comic writers of the 1950s.
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In an interview many years after his legendary Your Show of Shows (1950–1954) went off the air, Sid Caesar compared his writing staff to having all the great Impressionist painters collaborating in one room: “all that genius.”

Laughter on the 23rd Floor

His staff was the dream team of comedy: Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Mel Tolkin (All in the Family), Michael Stewart (Bye Bye Birdie, Hello, Dolly!), Lucille Callen, Neil and brother Danny Simon. Larry Gelbart (M.A.S.H.) and Woody Allen worked for Caesar on TV specials in the late '50s.

What was it like to put that many gifted writers — and vast, competitive egos — in a single room? Answer: Simon’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor. Which includes a Falstaff-sized portrait of Sid Caesar (renamed Max Prince), the scotch-swilling, pill-popping neurotic who allegedly returned to reality only on Saturday nights for the 90-minute show on NBC — live: no cue cards, Teleprompters, or seven-second delays.

Laughter's a memory play. Young Neil Simon, called Lucas (Brett Alters), stops the action on occasion and recalls his years — and growth — writing with the giants.

As a play, Laughter isn’t up to Simon’s well-made standards. It’s often glib and lacks an aggressive through-line. The important events — incipient McCarthyism, and especially the fall of sophisticated television — linger off to the side. Wave upon wave of one-liners, sketches, and a long, un-funny parody of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar lighten their import.

The play’s more parts than a whole, more banter than dramatic build. But the parts, performed at North Coast Rep by a tight ensemble cast, are often quite funny.

Those of a certain age can play a kind of Match Game. Red-faced David Elllenstein’s madly (but consistently) over-the-top Max is obviously Sid Caesar, who punches holes in Marty Burnett’s detailed set and somehow manages to memorize a 90-minute script in two days. Caesar paid for it with a nervous breakdown.

Omri Schein’s jittery egomaniac Ira Stone could be Mel Brooks (who wants to do the entire show by himself). Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper’s Russian-inflected Val would be Mel Tolkin, head writer famous for throwing crushed paper cups and lit cigars at his cohorts. Amanda Sitton’s no-nonsense/funny Carol could be Lucille Kallen (Tolkin’s longtime writing partner) or Selma Diamond, or both. And Phil Johnson’s keenly understated Kenny Franks must be Carl Reiner, who often played the “straight” man so brilliantly he went unnoticed.

Christopher M. Williams’s Brian (Tony Webster, “the only Gentile in the group”), Louis Lotorto’s Milt, a baroque fashion plate (smart period costumes by Elisa Benzoni), and Caroline Drage’s Helen, a somewhat daft secretary, make valuable contributions.

Imogene Coca, Caesar’s right-hand-woman on Your Show of Shows, recalled: “When you do live television — well, we stopped for nothing.” They couldn’t ad lib. “Max [Liebman, the director] would have died if anybody had ad-libbed. It would have been utter disgrace, and you would have been drummed right out of the corps…. Nobody ever forgot a line, and that was the amazing part of it.”

Playing through November 20

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Comments

Jeff Smith Nov. 9, 2016 @ 11 a.m.

Ah yes. Berle doing shows for Texaco. The three Jacks: Benny, Paar, and Douglas (the latter writing Paar's best stuff. as well as My Brother Was An Only Child and Never Trust A Naked Bus Driver). Groucho's You Bet Your Life.The Dick Van Dyke Show (based on the Sid Caesar Dream Team), and the immortal Ernie Kovacs, who was so far beyond the horizon he probably couldn't land a cable show these days.

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