Laughter on the 23rd Floor

Walnut Street Theatre, 9th and Walnut Sts., through Feb. 23, 574-3550 ext. 4.

As Max Prince, the most talked-about character since Godot, Frank Ferrante attacks every glob of comic shtick with gusto.
Neil Simon honed his skills as a gag writer working for Sid Caesar's Show of Shows in the early 1950s.

You don't learn dramaturgical skills -- like plot construction or characterization -- from being a gag writer; Simon picked these up elsewhere while writing his first 26 plays.

There are no dramaturgical skills in evidence whatsoever in his 27th, Laughter on the 23rd Floor, Simon's loving memory play about his Sid Caesar days. The play (such as it is) is a gag writer's play about gag writers, a collective portrait of comic geniuses who admit that they have little or no life outside of their gag-writing session for that week's Max Prince show. Marital discord, pregnancy, insolvency, hypochondriacal brain tumors are checked at the door; or, rather, they're shlepped in through the door as the subject of a series of one-liners, each acknowledged by the other gag writers with a respectful "ba-dum-bum."

Forget subtle expositions; Simon was never any good at that anyway. Here, the Simon stand-in Lucas (played winningly by the unflappable Scott Greer) describes the characters as they enter the room, who then deliver one-liners (ba-dum-bum), describe themselves, describe one another and describe their boss, Max Prince (Frank Ferrante): "He's the funniest man since Chaplin,""No one hates Max the way Max hates Max,""He has to pretend to be somebody else, the way he hides behind his characters on the show," etc., etc.

Max Prince is the most talked-about character since Godot, and his entrance is delayed almost as long. When he finally arrives (after a half hour of dialogue and ba-dum-bums) he's everything they describe him to be and less. Hyperactive, paranoid, drugged out on tranquilizers and Scotch (needless to say, we're told all this before he enters the room), Max is grandly, triumphantly, transcendently disconnected to the world outside of his show and his ego. He bullies, he roars, he rages. Then, when he leaves the room, the gag writers describe him all over again, this time telling us about his loyalty and self-destructive generosity ("I think he's noble," Lucas opines).

It's a perfect role for an actor-director like Frank Ferrante, who plays Max and directs. As Max, Ferrante attacks every glob of comic shtick (bashing his fist through walls, falling asleep on his feet) with gusto. He directs the long scenes before and after his character is on stage as so many one-liners (ba-dum-bum); and while Max is on, he directs his fellow actors like audio-animatrons, cuing them to pause, gasp, lean forward or lean back like a Gilbert & Sullivan chorus.

If Simon's play is about anything, it's about how anxiety fuels comedy: anxiety about McCarthy, blacklisting, Stalin, the bomb, and about the NBC executives who cut the show's length, the show's budget and finally the show itself.

Or maybe not. Maybe it's just a nostalgia piece about that one brief shining moment when these particular funny people got to be funny in that particular room. So maybe it's not a bad thing that the play is just a series of gags (ba-dum-bum), or that the actors playing the gag writers (Steve Perlmutter, Tony Freeman, Dick Decareau, Roy Abramsohn, Amanda Rogers and Ben Lipitz) are little more than the sum of their jokes (Simon's and their own), or that the comic high point of the evening is Ferrante (who has been making a living impersonating Groucho Marx in four different stage pieces) imitating Sid Caesar imitating Marlon Brando trying to do Shakespeare.


-- Cary M. Mazer