Big Dawg Productions is stacking the deck on this year’s season. In addition to their sold-out opening with Jones-Hope-Wooten’s “Dearly Beloved,” they are closing the season with another Jones-Hope-Wooten original. In the meantime, they are offering Neil Simon’s crowd-pleaser “Laughter on the 23rd Floor.” If you can’t laugh and have fun with a show that Neil Simon wrote about his time working for Sid Ceasar, then something is very wrong with the world—or your attitude about your life.
Neil Simon is undoubtedly one of the greatest playwrights living today. Many people are familiar with his greatest hits like “The Odd Couple,” “Barefoot in the Park,” “The Last of the Red Hot Lovers,” and the “Eugene” cycle of Brighton Beach memoirs: “Broadway Bound,” “Biloxi Blues” and “Lost in Yonkers.” (Mathew Broderick, though famous to many people as Ferris Buller, for another group of people will always be Eugene. Our own Linda Lavin won a Tony for her performances as his mother Kate in “Broadway Bound.”) Personally, I would say that though the Simon character in this show is named “Lucas” (Dillon Maurer), in many ways this is a continuation of the Eugene shows. It takes Simon into his professional life when the world of television comedy was changing as rapidly as television was developing.
Lucas is the sometime narrator who introduces us to the others writers in the room on the smartest, funniest variety show on television in 1953: “Max Prince.” All the characters are based on real people in Simon’s life. Prince (Jon Stafford) is based on Sid Caesar. Kenny Franks (Josh Bailey) was the real-life Larry Gelbart prior to his “M*A*S*H” fame. Val Slotsky (Jamey Stone)—the head writer of the show—was Mel Tolkin who wrote for “All in the Family.” Brian Doyle (Steven Bevels) was Tony Webster who wrote for “Love Boat “and “Car 54 Where Are You?” Likewise, Milt Fields (John Parson) was Sheldon Keller who wrote for “The Dick Van Dyke Show,.” Carol Wyman (Shawn Sproatt)—the lone female writer Lucille Kallen—went on to write mystery novels. And, of course, there’s the Mel Brooks-inspired Ira Stone (Hank Toler). Together this group wrote a live 90-minute sketch comedy show in the early ‘50s that laid the groundwork for much of what has come since, including “SNL.” Of course, they were quite dependent upon the services of the secretary, Helen (Susan Auten), who takes care of all the necessary things to make their lives continue. The time is very specifically 1953: Sen. McCarthy’s witch-hunts, which provide a specific need for the counter balance of comedy in American culture, are in full swing.
Though Max Prince is the star of the show they write for—and by extension the show we are watching—this is in every way an ensemble piece. Stafford plays Prince beautifully. It must be intimidating to step into a role made famous by Nathan Lane and Gene Wilder, but Stafford goes at it full-force and entirely as his own character. He doesn’t try to recreate either of the other men. He must exhaust himself by the end of every evening, because the amount of energy he expends onstage is tremendous—notable only as a secondary characteristic to his phenomenal performance, which include a not-to-be-missed rendition of Brando playing Julius Caesar and Brando’s greatest hits. There is no way that this part could be played without full commitment, and Stafford brings every ounce that the audience would want to see. Due to his film career, it is rare we get to see him onstage; this is a treat that must be seen.
Jamey Stone’s Val is wonderfully understated in a room full of over-the-top characters. His Russian accent is steady and he maintains it consistently for two hours of hilarity. He manages to give the audience a man who is truly filled with anger but has learned to sublimate that into comedy. Plus, he doesn’t lose any of his empathy or concern for others.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Parson as the loud, selfish, obnoxiously dressed Milt. Between the two is Kenny, played by Bailey, dropping bricks of sardonic humor that foreshadow his hallmark in “M*A*S*H.” Bailey and Parson both have light New York accents, but they don’t overdo it. Their Northern dialect is pronounced just enough to make several of the jokes work. If the last year of Bailey’s work can be summed up, perhaps it is this: He has learned how to throw the ball to everyone else onstage and to share the energy of the script with his cohorts.
Known for upstaging everyone in real life, there is no substitute for Mel Brooks. In this script, there is no replacement for Ira, who is brought to life by Hank Toler. Many people know Toler as an accomplished dramatic actor from “Lobby Hero” and “Diary of Adam and Eve” (to name but two); however, he demonstrates incredible comedic talent in this role. It’s Brooks, so there is no such thing as too big or too over the top. Toler is prepared to explore just how far he can take that challenge.
Fighting just to be heard and taken seriously in a man’s world is Carol, played beautifully by Shawn Sproatt. Still relatively new to Wilmington theatre-goers, every time I see Sproatt onstage, I am more impressed with her range, realism and sense of timing. This is a tough group of men to hold your own with, but she not only keeps her head above water, she makes them accept her as an equal.
By contrast, Susan Auten—a very strong and certain woman in real life—plays Helen as every stereotype that the men in the writer’s room want the secretary to be. She convinces in the role. Though, every time she spoke I found myself reminded how grateful I am not to have been a young professional woman at that time.
Even though he speaks the least of anyone, it is Lucas the audience is supposed to identify with: young, impressionable, eager and determined. Secretly, most people would probably rather be Brian, on his way to Hollywood, gainfully employed and mostly drunk.
How can you not love this script? In the hands of skilled director Anthony Lawson—who has a great eye for physical comedy, and a cast that is firing on all cylinders—this is a recipe for success. A good laugh is always good medicine. Do yourself a favor and go see a show you will walk out of smiling.
Laughter on the 23rd Floor
Cape Fear Playhouse
613 Castle St.
March, 19-22, 26-29, 8 p.m.; Sun. matinees: 3 p.m.