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Theatre Review: Laughter on the 23rd Floor is a smart comedy

Lisa Much Lisa Much Theatre Review: Laughter on the 23rd Floor is a smart comedyFrom left, Donovan Johnson (Max Prince) and Joel B. Cohen (Ira Stone) in the SRO Theatre Company production of Laughter on the 23rd Floor. Photo by Lillian DeDomenic.
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I did a quick peruse of TV Guide’s current top ranks to see two identical shows vying for top place (The Voice and American Idol). Then I noticed Dancing with the Stars, that show that reincarnates 80s celebrities. Scrolling down the list, I saw the song of our generation: Keeping up with the Kardashians. Curious about the best comedy, I noted The Big Bang Theory and Two and Half Men battling for that title…

So then I went to the Columbus Performing Arts Center to see SRO’s production of Neil Simon’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor.

From left, Donovan Johnson (Max Prince) and Joel B. Cohen (Ira Stone) in the SRO Theatre Company production of Laughter on the 23rd Floor. Photo by Lillian DeDomenic.

First performed in 1993, Simon based the play on his time as a writer for Your Show of Shows, a live variety show starring Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. Laughter follows the arch of that show, renamed The Max Prince Show, with the titular character representing Sid Caesar. The Simon alter-ego Lucas Brickman serves as a narrator throughout the play, detailing his exciting beginning on the show as the youngest writer, leading up to the moments of its inevitable demise. Weaving famed Simon antics and brilliant one-liners throughout the piece, other writers emulated include Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, and Larry Gelbart, creating a captivating script.

neeling from left, Roddey Nagy (Kenny Franks), Donovan Johnson (Max Prince), standing, Aleksandar Bulajic (Val Slotsky) Photo by Lillian DeDomenic.

Overall, the cast works well together. The diversity of the wit, comedic backgrounds, and skill represented by that writing staff creates a tall order and, for the most part, the cast delivers. Roddey Nagy brings a refreshing realness to Kenny Franks as a senior writer who cares for his coworkers and boss, but can cut a crisp comeback at the drop of a hat. Aleksander Bulajic excels as Val Slotsky, the Russian head writer who exasperatingly works to keep the wild team working. Donovan Johnson’s expert command between the calculated anger and eccentric joy and paranoia of Max Prince makes for a wonderful performance. Other stand-outs include Keely Kurtas-Chapman as the strong, but sensible singular female writer and Kyle Snyder as the innocent yet solid straight-man Lucas Brickman.

The cast works hard to play off one another, allowing the flow of Simon’s writing to tell the tale with an enthralling ease without pushing too hard. It felt as though it took the cast about fifteen minutes on stage before the energy required for a Simon show truly built up; however, once it got there, hilarity ensued. The majority of the first act really engages the audience as it pulls them into the world of television comedy writing in the 1950s, McCarthyism, and the personal lives of the Max Prince writing staff. Then Ira Stone arrives.

Ira Stone, modeled after Mel Brooks, is an exceptionally funny, hypochondriac, Jewish writer. Unfortunately, as the momentum builds in the first act, Ira Stone’s entrance almost drains the energy from the stage. The bombastic nature of the character’s inspiration and personality struggle to reach the audience, which in turn, creates a feeling that the remainder of the cast strongly dislikes Ira. This set up harms the second act, as the familial feel dwindles making many significant moments, such as Ira’s demands for love, feel contrived.

Technically, the show worked. Subtle ambient sound design aided in the feel of the office, New York City, and the era. Debbie Hamrick’s costumes and Edith Watkins set create a believable world for the 23rd floor, while doubling for playsuits and a jungle gym for demanding physical antics of the characters. Liz Langford’s comprehensive props add a splendid touch of reality to the show.

Laughter on the 23rd Floor serves as an exhibit in the metaphorical museum of television, a relic of a form of entertainment long gone. In the days where the most popular programming showcases “real people” or tired sex jokes and caricatures (ahem, Chuck Lorre), the thought of smart comedy that does not condescend the audience yet still receives high ratings offers a nice walk down nostalgia lane. For a welcomed break from the boob-tube, go see Laughter on the 23rd Floor.

Laughter on the 23rd Floor runs until April 21 at Columbus Performing Arts Center in the Van Fleet Theatre, 549 Franklin Ave. Fri. & Sat. at 8 pm; Sun. at 2 pm. Tickets $20; seniors $17 and students $10.
More information can be found online at www.srotheatre.org.

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