The theatre department of Jacksonville University presented a four performance run of Neil Simon’s comedy riot “Laughter On the 23rd Floor.” As with many of Simon’s plays, it is based on actual experiences in his life. Simon and his brother Danny were writers for the hottest TV comedy of the 1950’s, “Your Show of Shows,” starring Sid Caesar. Although the names of Simon’s co-writers were changed in the script, some of the great names in comedy writing were represented, including Larry Gelbart and Mel Brooks, among others.
Over the years Jacksonville University has revived plays that were not only outstanding in theme but were also lessons in the history of times and events that have been long forgotten. Two plays come quickly to mind, “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Ragtime.” “Laughter” takes place in 1953, when three television giants ruled the world: ABC, CBS, and NBC. Most shows were done live, with live audiences. This golden age of television seems like a very distant time, as we are now accustomed to hundreds of channels, available by cable or by satellite.
The arresting set by Technical Director and Set Designer Brandon Lettow used a backdrop with stylized Manhattan skyscrapers in black, yellow, and red. The retro interior included pink and turquoise wall panels, and had all the furnishings needed by a team of driven creative writers, including a large conference table, a battered desk with a manual typewriter, an upholstered couch, and an iconic water cooler, and of course, a coffee pot. Completing the visual picture was Costume Designer Sally Pettegrew’s attention to the attire worn in the 50’s, with clothing that ranged from slacks and sport coats to suits for men, with most wearing hats, and skirts for the women.
Narrating the story is Lucas Brickman who represents Neil Simon, the newest writer on the block. The part was marvelously played by Roy Matos, who did not look like Simon but could pass as the younger brother of movie star Christopher Walken. Comprising the other writers on the team were Milt Fields (Brian Trumble), Val Skolsky (Wayne Woodson), Brian Doyle (Jordan Smith), Kenny Franks (Brandon Hofmann), Ira Stone (David Bilbray) and Michele McGovern as Carol Wyman, the only woman writer. Janae Lafleur as Helen, the office secretary and receptionist, rounded out the cast.
For their paychecks, all these people are beholden to Max Prince, the Sid Caesar character, played brilliantly by Nick Boucher in a tremendously demanding role. His portrayal of the complex network star kept us guessing as an audience, as he stormed through the office, terrifying his employees who never knew what to expect from his volatile displays of manic temperament. Prince’s main concerns were with the future of the show as network executives cut back his airtime and his budget, their insistence on censorship of his material, and the ongoing investigation of entertainers by Senator Joseph McCarthy who was blacklisting anyone who did not cooperate with his inquiries into Communist infiltration.
This show was incredibly funny, with many of Simon’s one liners delivered to perfection by all members of this outstanding cast. If you have never seen it, imagine a room full of wisecracking writers tossing around story ideas that bounce from actor to actor like a ping pong ball. What especially impressed the Dual Critics was the incredible timing displayed by each performer.
Each voice was unique, and projected with confidence, loudly and clearly. Wayne Woodson as a Russian and Jordan Smith as an Irishman used very convincing accents. David Bilbray as Ira Stone was an audience favorite as a hypochondriac who never met a health problem he did not immediately incorporate into his entire being. Bilbray also made this a bit of a musical, singing a funny song about his predicaments.
An interesting point was brought up by Michele McGovern who, as Carol, wanted to be considered first as a writer, but felt belittled because in accordance with the times, her male team members gave more weight to her role as a woman than to her contributions as a team member.
One final character, unseen but heard, was Leonard Alterman who contributed a brief saxophone solo in one of the final scenes in the show.
Director Deborah Jordan has directed many wonderful shows at JU over the years and this was certainly one of her best. A number of cast members were relatively new to theatre but you would not have known it from their performances. Ms. McGovern and Ms. LeFleur are seniors and will be graduating this year, but the remainder will be back next year. Good news for Ms. Jordan and for the many fans of Jacksonville University Theatre. The Dual Critics would like to thank the theatre department and the administration of Jacksonville University for presenting such professional quality productions while managing to keep ticket prices so affordable for everyone
Coming up next is Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Gondoliers” in April.