Friday, September 12, 2014

REVIEW: SWNW's "Laughter on the 23rd Floor"

Stageworks Northwest presents a comedy about comedy writers written by a comedy writer.

Neil Simon.

What can I say about this (still living) modern American playwright? He's written one of my favorite plays (God's Favorite); several I like very much (like The Odd Couple); some that are quite good, but not my cup of tea; and quite a few I could care less about.

He's prolific. He can be funny. And he can be crude, somewhat foul and even irreverent. A Jewish writer, he's not afraid to let you know it and then show that he's not all that dedicated to the tenets of his faith either.

"Laughter on the 23rd Floor" is a biographical work. How accurate, how realistic, how self-reflective, I don't know. But it is a look back at his days working as a comedy writer for Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows" a live comedy variety show which ran on NBC from 1950-1954. Simon was part of the writing team which included Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks.

The play takes place in 1953 in the writer’s room of the "Max Prince Show," a fictional comedy variety show, during the height of McCarthyism.

Comedy writers who work in teams bounce around a lot of ideas, it seems, while also making jabs at one another. You'll see this in television programs like "The Dick Van Dyke Show" (1961-66, developed by Carl Reiner) and "30 Rock" (created by Tina Fey, who developed as a team comedy writer for SNL).

I've seen maybe a season of "30 Rock." I watched "The Dick Van Dyke Show" as a child and have revisited it as an adult. The former had it's funny moments, but also things that moved beyond my taste. The latter I enjoyed very much.

But what did I think of this production?

Frankly, not fondly. My least favorite Simon play to date. It was far too vulgar and distasteful for me. Way far. And that is it's biggest flaw, because it needn't be.

Lots and lots of F-bombs and coarse language, the Lord's name in vain, and general swearing permeated the script. The 50's weren't like that (at with least the F-bomb). Still, the story was good.

Having said that, I will add that a lot of the comedy shticks were really well written. There's a lot of great humor in the script. And having said that, I have to say that the patter pace and comic timing of this presentation simply did not do the comedy justice.

The Look of It

A pretty good shot of the really good set.
The set for this show looks great! The overall concept and execution, marvelous. The set dressing and costuming were generally good, but some non-period "best we could dos" were present in both.

The overall production values were high and the lighting even and well conceived. Everything ran smoothly.
Kudos to Michael and Jennifer Cheney for a great design as well as Leslie Slape for making it all cue up.

The Lack of It

Michael R. Cheney, left, plays a tormented TV star.
The production, directed by Jennifer Cheney, I would classify as "good," but not exceptional (like their production of "9 to 5"). As mentioned the cast lacked zing in the zingers. And I felt the characters should have been pushed a bit more toward the zany. Performances generally lacked oomph. I just wasn't sold.

The cast, in order of appearance, includes: Dean Baker as Lucas, new writer (based on Neil Simon); Corey Farmer as Milt, staff writer (based on Sheldon Keller); Pip A. Kennedy as Val, head staff writer (based on Mel Tolkin); Ryan Lee Gaylor as Brian, staff writer (based on Tony Webster); Patrick Hale as Kenny, staff writer (based on Larry Gelbart); Lora Ressler as Carol, senior staff writer (based on Lucille Kallen); Michael R. Cheney as Max Prince, comic actor (based on Sid Caesar); Ashley Stevens as Helen, secretary; and Matt Olason as Ira, staff writer (based on Mel Brooks).

Pip A. Kennedy, right, is in top form and clearly the leading talent.
Michael Cheney's and Matt Olason's performances did rise above the rest, but the true star of the show was Pip Kennedy in top form. I believe he played his role near perfection.

I think the play has merit. It is interesting. And, if you are a person who can take a goodly dose of foul language without it bothering you, then you should see the play.

WARNING: This show contains a few adult situations and pervasive strong language--including the Lord's name used in vain and several F-bombs. I do not recommend this show for everyone.

The play runs 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays now through September 28, 2014 at the historical Longview Theater space of Stageworks Northwest. Click here for tickets.

I enjoyed this related trivia page on the SWNW website.

By Gregory E. Zschomler
Photos, by Amanda Wilson Portraiture, provided.

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