Before SundanceTV’s “The Writers’ Room,” which gives an inside look behind the hottest shows, or Tina Fey’s backstage comedy “30 Rock,” there was Neil Simon’s “Laughter on the 23rd Floor.” The autobiographical, comedic play brings to stage a fictionalized version of playwright and screenwriter Simon’s beginnings as a junior writer on the NBC variety show, “Your Show of Shows.” Under the direction of Anthony David Lawson, Big Dawg Productions’ iteration makes its way to Cape Fear Playhouse, beginning Thursday, March 12.
Drawing from the wacky antics that occur anytime an eclectic blend of humorous minds are put in a room with a pen and paper, “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” generates laughs with caricatures inspired by real-life legends like Mel Brooks (a.k.a. Ira Stone, the hypochondriac). The play opened on Broadway in 1993, and details Lucus Brickman’s (a.k.a. Neil Simon) experience working on Sid Ceaser-inspired Max Prince’s weekly variety show. Hilarity ensues as Max dukes it out with NBC executives, who deem his material too sophisticated for the average American.
Initially, Lawson wanted to do Big Dawg’s September 2015 production—“Dead Man’s Cell Phone”—but is slated to direct Opera House Theatre Company’s “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” Subsequently, he found a connection with Simon’s autobiographical script, as it’s less slapstick than Simon’s other work.
“I love the source material,” Lawson tells. “I love that it was about ‘Your Show of Shows’ and classic comedy. This was the one that I gravitated toward.”
Lawson—also a local actor and writer, who currently is penning encore’s Fact or Fiction serial piece throughout 2015, ‘The Nine Lives of Xen’—also concocted the Shakespeare-inspired romps “The Bard’s Broads” and “The Bard is a Broad” for TheatreNOW, both of which he directed. Despite his prowess for comedy, he began working with more dramatic material. Even as an actor, he tried his hand at Shakespeare, but comedy slowly has seeped into his repertoire—something he admits is much harder to write than drama.
“Comedy intrigues me because I don’t understand what makes someone funny,” he says. “I know what makes me laugh; I know what I think is funny. But I have no idea why it’s funny. It’s a mystery to me; I like unraveling it.”
Directing someone else’s script has been a relief to Lawson. The seasoned actor began producing his own material to combat the stifling demands of other playwright’s material. Consequently, he takes a much more laissez-faire approach when directing his own shows; however, working with Simon’s words, he’s more invested in staying true to the script.
With “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” Lawson has honed his skills to accurately portray the 1950s television industry. “The way I’m attacking it is like ‘Mad Men,’ with a bunch of crazy people in a really shitty office,” he elaborates. “It’s not the nice, glamorous ‘Mad Men’; this is the ‘Mad Men’ that’s down the alley and up the few flights of stairs that you couldn’t take an elevator to.”
Lawson has culled a true ensemble cast. Dillon Maurer will portray the show’s version of Neil Simon, Lucus Brickman. Both hardworking, Maurer identifies with Brickman’s desire to make it big in the television industry.
“It’s a big responsibility to do justice for this play,” Maurer says. “Anytime you are playing someone that is a real person you want to be as authentic as possible. Comedy is tough. Just let it happen. It’s easy to over do. Let the audience decide to laugh or not.”
Hank Toler will be paying homage to Mel Brooks via Ira. “We both have the capacity to talk far too fast and far too quickly,” Toler details. “I certainly admire his self-centered qualities and over-the-top nature, because it’s fun to play.”
Shawn Sproatt will be the only female writer, Carol. “My biggest challenge with finding the funny in Carol was to not make her seem like a nag,” Sproatt says. “She’s the only woman writer in the room, and it could be very easy for her to come off like that condescending woman who tries to ball-bust the men. On the other hand, it can’t be ignored that she’s the only woman there, so I’ve had to find that balance of finding her quirks that make her just as nutty as the others without playing the gender card when it’s not called for in the script.”
Comedian Jamey Stone, who will play Val, excites in a chance fill a role that hits close to home.Josh Bailey is bringing to life the quietly confident Kenny, and John Parson will perform as Milt, who completely lacks self-confidence. Overall, the pacing—especially with rapid-fire, quip-laden dialogue—is the key challenge of the show.
“Comedy is all about timing, and that’s a hard thing to replicate time after time,” Parson states. “It’s all about seeing what makes the room and myself laugh, much like a writer’s room.”
“Go too far, and the character isn’t believable,” Stone chimes in. “Don’t go far enough, and the character is bland.”
Filling out the rest of the ensemble will be Susan Auten as Helen, Steven Bevels as Brian, and Jon Stafford as Max Prince. “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” opens Thursday, March 12.
Laughter on the 23rd Floor
Cape Fear Playhouse, 613 Castle St.
March 12-15, 19-22, 26-29, 8 p.m., Sunday matinees: 3 p.m.