Laughter on the 23rd Floor: The Joke’s On Caesar
Stalin has died and Joe McCarthy is saying bad things about General Montgomery. And on stage at Smith College’s Mendenhall Center for the Performing arts, an audience of people old enough to get the jokes was laughing along with a cast who could all easily keep up with Neil Simon’s deadpan humor with perfect comedic timing.
In the first show of a their four-play season, New Century Theatre picked a fast-paced and genuinely funny production about a television comedy writing crew in 1953. Inspired by the playwright’s own experiences working on Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows,” the play balances a bunch of fun-loving writers against a mercurial and somewhat delusional main character, Max Prince, played by Christopher Daftsios.
Prince has problems with NBC, their jokes are not sitting well in the heartland. There are threats to cut the budget, and the show itself down to an hour. People are going to be fired. All the while, the writing must go on, and the characters, as described by the lone woman Carol, are all talking f–k.
That’s the way it is when you spend so much time on the 23rd floor, writing sketches and dealing with Max, who they love, worship and fear. In the first act, Prince ends up in his boxers after sending his pants out to the cleaners in mid-sentence.
It all adds to the ribald craziness of a comedy writing crew who are as intent on battling each other’s wits as they are in writing next week’s show. They hold comedy jousts where two opponents face one another and have to whip up funny names for things, like a Chinese jew. It all goes by fast, and no one in this casts misses a beat.
It’s mayhem listening to Max Prince as he struts around barely containing his rage against his NBC bosses, he threatens to call them up and quit, but as everyone knows, back then there were only three networks. The writers, while a bunch of pals all loving their jobs, have some problems.
One of them, Ira, is a hypochondriac. Simon wrote this role as a slap/tribute to Mel Brooks, who like Simon, was a member of the early Caesar writing crew. There is even an homage to the great Sid himself when a comedy bit they’re writing turns out to be about the death of Caesar the Roman emperor. Clearly Simon had fun skewering the comedy legend, and this turns out to be one of the funniest scenes in the play. Brian, (Justin Fuller) and Kenny (Paul Melendy) and Val (Brandon Whitehead) rehearse the skit and pound their chests as Ira tries to take back some of the funniest lines he’d written for the skit by eating the script.
At one point Milt, (Sam Samuels) comes on stage wearing a white suit, to the dismay of his co-workers. “You look like a Nazi fleeing to Argentina,” “The first rabbi in the Amazon,” “The entrance to the White House,” are some of the wisecracks. He has to hide from Max who has a thing about white suits, fortunately, he is too worked up to notice it as Milt hides behind a newspaper. “There is something different about you, did you get a haircut?” he asks.
Like any great television show, by the third act we all know it won’t last forever, but the young narrator, Lucas, (Jonathan Saulmon), has had a great time and wouldn’t trade it all in for the world. There’s talk of more negotiations, and waiting it out, but everyone knows that what worked in 1953 won’t work forever.
One of writers, Brian has moved out to Hollywood and returns in a suave looking cashmere coat, smoking a cigarette. “I’ve never seen a pack of camels talk,” comes the retort. When the secretary Helen confesses she’s always wanted to be a comedy writer, they try to give her a shot, but she can’t think of anything funny and it’s swiftly clear that comedy is not as easy as it looks. “Writing a joke is not a semi-annual event,” she’s told.