Sunday, March 30, 2008

Laughter on the 23rd Floor

It is a sad fact that over the years I have been reviewing for The Davis Enterprise, I have seen that a mediocre musical will consistently get a bigger audience than a first rate play. I have often left a half-full theater thinking what a shame it is that people in this area just don't seem to come out for straight plays any more, and how sad that they don't realize what they are missing.

A case in point is Davis Musical Theater Company's new comedy series, which opened with one of Neil Simon's funnier plays, “Laughter on the 23rd Floor.”

Laughter” is Simon's homage to the time he spent working on “Your Show of Shows,” the old Sid Caesar weekly variety show, in the waning days of the golden era of television variety shows, and in the middle of the McCarthy era, when the networks were afraid of topical humor and were “dumbing down” shows to be more “family friendly.” The writing staff included some of the greats in comedy – Caesar himself, of course, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, and Larry Gelbart, among others. (Reiner would go on to create his own homage to this period, in the form of “The Dick Van Dyke Show”)

Director Michael McElroy has hit a triple (not quite a home run, but close) on his first directing effort with a fast-paced, funny, well acted production that features a top notch cast.

Joshua Smith is Lucas, the Neil Simon character, who acts as both the narrator, introducing each writer in turn as he or she enters the room, and is also a participant in the action. Smith's Lucas is a fresh-faced, wide-eyed, innocent looking young man who is somewhat in awe of the company in which he finds himself on this high powered writing team. Sadly, actor Smith's lines aren't always distinct enough, so that you miss pieces of dialog or narration here and there, but overall he turns in a believable performance.

The group is writing for “The Max Prince
Show,” and Kevin Caravalho turns in an inspired, frenetic performance as Max, a comic genius whose insecurities cause him to throw up before each show, who pops pills and drinks too much. He rants and raves, throws the telephone, and punches holes in the wall, but he is intensely loyal to his writing staff and is in constant battle with the network to keep the show on the air. Caravalho always gives 110% and this role is no exception.

While this is a generally above-average cast, there are some, like Caravalho, who stand out. Paul Fearn as the head writer, Val, a Russian-Jewish immigrant, who is taking elocution lessons so that he can pronounce curse words properly, is another who lights up the stage when he makes his entrance, transforming “OK” performances into something electric. Val's exit line, at the end of the show, is one of my favorites.

Jeff Labowitch plays the hypochondriac Ira (based on Woody Allen), who arrives late each day and who seems to suffer from the malady du jour, everything from a heart attack to a brain tumor, and dreams of having a virus named after him.

Darryl Strohl is Milt, the womanizer who revels in his flashy dress. It's hard to know which is the more notable—his all white suit, or his red plaid pants (kudos to costume designer Jean Henderson).

Clocky McDowell is the chain-smoking Brian, who is always just about to make it big in Hollywood, once he writes that perfect script. His “shoe fight” with Ira was a very funny moment.

Lauren Miller is Karen, the lone woman on the writing team, who has been around so long she really is “one of the guys” (think RoseMarie in the Dick Van Dyke Show). Kris Farhood is Helen, Max's long-suffering secretary.

Kenny (Brennen Cull) is the peacemaker, the one who seems to be the solid rock of the group, constantly trying to talk sense into the other writers. By Act 2, when it becomes obvious that the show is on the way out, Kenny remarks, poignantly, “Maybe we'll never have this much fun again in our entire lives.”

Kenny was probably right, but Simon made sure that the fun didn't die entirely by recreating it in “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” which will give the audience a taste of what it was like to turn out one of the best variety shows in the history of television.

Fortunately, Davis Musical Theater Company has done well by the script. Treat yourself to something other than a musical and revel in the humor of a bygone day—and remember what television was like when the likes of Sid Caesar and his writing team ruled the airwaves.

No comments: