By Mary Boyle
Long before Saturday Night Live, in the early days of television, there was a program called Your Show of Shows. Ninety minutes of live comedy sketches, starring the great Sid Caesar, that kept America laughing during the Cold War 1950's. While the show, itself, was smart and funny, the real work all happened in the writer's room on the 23rd floor of NBC's studios in New York, where a group of writers came together and pioneered television comedy, and more, for generations to come. This is the story behind LAUGHTER ON THE 23RD FLOOR.
Written by Neil Simon, who happened to be one of the writers on the 23rd floor and who went on to write The Odd Couple and Barefoot in the Park, among others, Laughter is fictional, but barely; basically, the names are changed. Sid Caesar is Max Prince (David Cecsarini) and Neil Simon is Lucas Brickman (Zach Thomas Woods), a newly-hired writer who is hoping to make his mark with the best writers on television. He joins established writers, Milt (Rick Pendzich), based on Sheldon Keller, who went on to write episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show and M*A*S*H; Val (Mohammad N. ElBsat), based on Mel Tolkin, who was the award-winning head writer for Your Show of Shows; Brian (Dylan Bolin), based on Tony Webster, who went on to write for The Love Boat; Kenny (Seth K. Hale), based on Larry Gelbart, who created and produced M*A*S*H, and Carl Reiner, who was the creator, producer, writer, and an actor on The Dick Van Dyke Show, as well as being the father of Rob Reiner; Ira (Adam Qutaishat), based on Mel Brooks, who is best known for directing Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, The Producers, Spaceballs, and more; and Carol (Karen Estrada), based on Lucille Kallen, who was the only woman in the writer's room for Your Show of Shows, and Selma Diamond, who joined the writer's room when the show became Caesar's Hour.
Directed by Edward Morgan, this is the second time Laughter on the 23rd Floor is being produced at Next Act, the first time being 20 years ago. Interestingly, Dylan Bolin, who plays Brian/Tony Webster, was in that production 20 years ago, also as Brian. Next Act's Producing Artistic Director, David Cecsarini, delivers a truly impressive performance as Max Prince/Sid Caesar. Rick Pendzich, seen earlier this season as the hysterical Highland Hitman in MCT's Unnecessary Farce, is always so good at being funny, but it was fascinating to see Karen Estrada, who is often cast as a motherly type, swearing up a storm on the stage (this is one for mature audiences, by the way). Zach Thomas Woods is rapidly becoming a local performer to watch, and makes a great Next Act debut as Lucas/Neil Simon.
This production, of course, is funny, yet it's not quite a full-fledged comedy because of its documentary-like, almost nostalgic quality. The play is even more compelling as a time-capsule of America's Golden Age of television and the unique political atmosphere following World War II during the Cold War, when the Red Scare was leaking its way into Hollywood. The group of writers was interesting in that there was a woman where women usually weren't allowed at that time, and Caesar and all of the writers were Jewish, except Tony Webster. Head writer, Mel Tolkin, was a Russian Jew, which made him a target for the accusations of Communism in Hollywood, but he never made the infamous Hollywood Blacklist. The writer's room was the incubator of so many television programs, films, and plays that shaped our country, and their influence still continues today. In fact, I would say it is safe to say that this play is almost an origin story for pop culture: important to see in terms of a good cultural education, but also highly relevant and applicable to things happening around us now. In a nutshell, a smart play by a smart writer for smart audiences.
LAUGHTER ON THE 23RD FLOOR runs through December 15th at Next Act Theatre, located at 255 S. Water St. in the Walker's Point neighborhood of Milwaukee. Tickets may be purchased by calling (414) 278-0765 or online at www.NextAct.org.
About Next Act Theatre
Next Act Theatre engages the hearts and minds of audiences with intimate, compelling productions intended to stimulate thought, foster the exchange of ideas, and promote the development of new perspectives and understanding. Led by Producing Artistic Director, David Cecsarini, Next Act continues its tradition of creating high-quality, professional theatre in Milwaukee. The past 28 seasons have earned the company its strong reputation for producing engaging work that feels intimate, powerful and personal. The plays presented are passionate, often bold, sometimes humorous, and always up-close-and-personal presentations of life. A strong, vibrant and financially stable company, Next Act produces a four-show season of contemporary drama. The company is particularly noted for its acting excellence, accessible performance style, and for a varied and consistently interesting selection of plays, chosen from the best new works and off-Broadway hits. Next Act has mounted more than 100 main stage productions, including over 100 area premieres and six original scripts.