THEATER REVIEW: At Walnut Street, Maybe Too Much Laughter on the 23rd Floor

In an often-dazzling parade of comic shtick, the sentimental side of Neil Simon tends to disappear.

The Cast of Laughter on the 23rd Floor at Walnut Street Theatre. (Photo by Mark Garvin)

Frank Ferrante, Tony Lawton, Davy Raphaely, Tony Freeman and Jesse Bernstein in Laughter on the 23rd Floor at Walnut Street Theatre. (Photo by Mark Garvin)

In the mid-1980s, Neil Simon, whose meteoric career as the King of Broadway had dimmed a decade earlier, got a reboot.  With his Brighton Beach trilogy, the playwright’s stock rose again. He also seemed to be trying out a new voice. These new plays featured a narrator-character based on Simon himself, and the tone was more sentimental and elegiac. They were still comedies, for sure—but significantly less jokey than the Borscht-Belt-inflected stuff that had been his bread and butter. Critics who had previously dismissed Simon were more respectful; the final Brighton play won a Pulitzer.

Laughter on the 23rd Floor, now on stage at the Walnut Street Theatre, followed the Brighton Beach plays by several years. It, too, has the feel of a memoir.  This time, the Simon character (called Lucas, and charmingly played here by Davy Raphaely) recalls his heady entrée into professional comedy writing, as he joins the staff of NBC’s storied Your Show of Shows in the early 1950s.  And what a company of mentors he had! The team included Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Selma Diamond, and Sid Caesar.  (The names are all changed here, but the characters are easily identifiable.)

Given the writer’s long history, audiences might wonder which Neil Simon they are going to get in Laughter.  Will this be a humorous but poignant exploration his past? Or a full-throttle farce, where the reminiscing about Caesar, Brooks and company feels like a sketch out of Your Show of Shows?

The answer is loud and unequivocal at Walnut Street, in a production that, from the get-go, is ablaze with comic virtuosity.  The ensemble—Jesse Bernstein, Tony Freeman, Scott Greer, Anthony Lawton, Ellie Mooney, Steve Perlmutter, Leah Walton, and Frank Ferrante (playing the Caesar character; Ferrante also directed the show) deliver the goods with energy and panache to spare.

Much of the time, it’s welcome, even (as in a wild game of one-upmanship between Greer and Lawton) inspired.

But the pitch is so high so much of the time that Laughter feels more like a collection of bits than a play. We’ve seen so much mugging early on that the big set piece in Act II—a parody of Marlon Brando’s performance in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar—is anti-climactic, and the play’s touching ending feels disconnected from the rest of the show.

Most of the problem lies in Simon’s writing, which lays on the jokes (some good, others not so much) with a trowel. But I wish Ferrante’s direction had chosen to go in the other direction—to focus on characters and conversation—rather than compound it.

It’s hard not to enjoy Laughter in this production, so filled with an often-dazzling parade of comic shtick.  But for me, it was also a dispiriting reminder that, while the post-Brighton Neil Simon seemed to have conquered his addiction to punchlines and rimshots, it was only a case of temporary remission.

Laughter on the 23rd Floor plays through March 5. For more information, visit the Walnut Street Theatre website.