By Dee Jae Cox
Time is a prism that refracts the light and perspective of events and can leave us yearning for bygone days or celebrating the passage of such out of touch eras, depending on ones view. Neil Simon’s comedy, Laughter on the 23rd Floor, currently in production at the Desert TheatreWorks, is set in 1953 and is a show that may garner some nostalgic sighs for a few who see the charm of a time that is fraught with sexism, racism and the red scare. But it’s not a “golden age” I’d wish to revisit.
Laughter on The 23rd Floor was first produced in 1993 and later turned into a film in 2001. It depicts a slice of life from Simon’s early television career, when he worked as a writer for Sid Caesar’s comedy series, Your Show of Shows. It’s set in the writer’s room of the fictional Max Prince Show. The casting is well done and talented actors can almost always make a bad play bearable. They deliver the funny and witty one-liners with just the right amount of zing. Simon’s alter ego, Lucas, portrayed by Mason Mcintosh is the new guy hoping to keep his job as part of this witty ensemble.
The Max Prince Show, is threatened by NBC who wants to trim away the 90 minutes of intellectual comedy to 60 minutes of simple, Middle America stand-up. Arnie Kleban in the Lead role of Max Prince was incredible and a lot of fun to watch, as he broke down and morphed into a man with the weight of his world on his shoulders. The cast of writers, Ed Lefkowitz as Milt, Jason Lewis as Val, Tanner Lieser as Kenny and Stephen McMillen as Brian, were spot on with their wit and comedic timing. Mike Olton, in his Mel Brooks inspired role as the hypochondriac, Ira Stone, was hysterical and certainly stole his scenes.
The lone woman on the staff is Carol (Tiffani Lobue), who spends most of Act II very pregnant. Not sure of the purpose of having the only female on this all male staff spend half the show laboring to sit and stand and move, except to perhaps prove she is indeed straight after her “I don’t want to be known as a woman writer. I just want to be one of the guys,” monologue. (Would love to have seen her insist on being on equal pay scale with the guys,) but you can’t blame a woman for not wanting to be seen as a woman writer, since women were rarely hired as TV writers in 1953… or 2016.
This is a good production of Simon’s play, but unfortunately it does not solve the problems of a script that vacillates between witty schtick and political outrage. Slice of Life plays can be interesting if they give us insights into moments that others (outside of the writer) care to see. Unfortunately for Laughter on the 22rd Floor, this was not the case.
Director Lance Phillips-Martinez does a wonderfully creative job of staging this piece. Ron Phillips-Martinez’s set excelled in creating the locale and era. And Michele Dobson’s costumes were perfect, but it was not enough to make me understand why this would be a piece anyone would want to devote time and effort to. Despite a high production value, it’s just not a play I can recommend.
An important retraction that I would like to make – in last reviewing the Desert Theatreworks I had made mention that none of the shows in their current season were penned by a female playwright and that was not correct. Their September 2015 production of Dead Man’s Cell Phone was written by female playwright Sarah Ruhl.
Laughter on the 23rd Floor, a production of Desert Theatreworks, can be seen through February 7th at the Arthur Newman Theatre in the Joslyn Center, located at 73750 Catalina Way in Palm Desert.
For Reservations: call 760-980-1455, or visit www.dtworks.org.
Dee Jae Cox, is a playwright, director and producer. She is the Cofounder and Artistic Director for The Los Angeles Women’s Theatre Project and the host of KPTR 1450’s hit radio show, “California Woman 411” in Palm Springs.