Stage Review: Laughter on the 23rd Floor (2018)

Playwright Neil Simon’s hallmark intelligence, wit and, briefly, pathos remains on display in a revised version of Simon’s 1993 comedy, Laughter on the 23rd Floor, playing at the Garry Marshall Theatre (formerly the Falcon Theatre) in Burbank. The two-act play runs through April 22.

The setting is a New York City television writers’ room in the early 1950s, when a band of comedy writers, a secretary and a brash TV show host banter, clash and strive to tap what’s humorous about news, politics and culture amid a major media transition from radio-friendly routines to the onset of televised sports, variety and situational comedy. This is Neil Simon’s homage to early television figures such as Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks. Revised through a modern perspective by director Michael Shepperd, neurotic creatives try to please the blustery boss of a weekly 90-minute show. Though a recent Saturday night performance was a bit sluggish in the first act, and some of the acting was overdone, cast, crew and show come through.

You can tell from the caustic humor that this is an early 1990s take on the early 1950s. The 40-year difference lies in a few too many McCarthy jokes and flat lines about the deaths of Josef Stalin and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The basic narrative with young Neil Simon stand-in Lucas (Jason Grasl in his Garry Marshall Theatre debut) punctuates and frames the story about the strain of storytelling when making sharp jokes about Ibsen and Shakespeare was about to fall prey to the less literate post-war culture. Not that these writers for the fictional Max Prince Show put on high brow material. They don’t, which inevitably is part of the play’s point that writers are human and must deal with the culture, too. Laughter‘s funniest shtick mines this self-awareness, which goes to Neil Simon’s strength in portraying ordinary people making light of life’s indignities — enduring damage, digs and hardship — without making fun of what matters.

Like Simon’s Lost in Yonkers and his 1980s trilogy of coming of age-themed plays, Laughter on the 23rd Floor recreates artistic struggle with a wistful longing that wrestles with the Fifties’ deficiencies, too. Neil Simon is a master storyteller. Here, too, he sets forth arcs of loss and love in life and work. With a standout performance from understudy Jason Weiss (also in his Garry Marshall Theatre debut), filling in for Jeff Campanella as hypochondriac Ira, a pivotal role that helps Pat Towne bring the show to a climax as TV host Max Prince, the 130-seat Garry Marshall Theatre delivers with Laughter on the 23rd Floor, which marks the final production in its four-play inaugural season.

Tickets, starting at $45, are available by calling (818) 955-8101 or visiting GarryMarshallTheatre.org