Review: ‘Laughter on the 23rd Floor’ at Walnut Street Theatre

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A special recipe for a belly full of laughter awaits at the Walnut Street Theatre. Take a bunch of madcap comedy show writers, mix with mayhem and a kooky secretary, add a tinge of McCarthyism, shake things up via an exceedingly entertaining (funny) ensemble, pour into an outstandingly detailed set and you have Neil Simon’s scrumptiously comical cocktail Laughter on the 23rd Floor, `a la direction by Frank Ferrante. Based on Simon’s experience as a young writer for the 1950’s televised variety program, Your Show of Shows, the play allows for a joke bespeckled peek through the pages of history at the changes occurring in television and other media at a time when socio-political tensions in the U.S. were being exacerbated by fallacies and communist witch hunts.

(Left to right:) Anthony Lawtron, Frank Ferrante, Davy Raphaely, Tony Freeman, and Jesse Bernstein. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Set in an office featuring a golden throne-like chair replete with a half-cocked gold crown sitting on the back, dartboard, side table with coffee, danish, bagels and onion rolls, a large metal desk and `50s style teal furniture on the 23rd floor of building somewhere on 57th Street in New York City, the writing team for The Max Prince Show brace for changes to the show. When the boss, Max Prince (Frank Ferrante) shows up late after drunk dialing a couple of team members, head writer Val Slotsky (Tony Freeman) is seriously concerned. The news about NBC and their contract must not be good, and worries, one-liners and funny rapid fire retorts ricochet around the room like drunken fireflies in a hailstorm. Seems the network executives feel that the show’s humor is too far above the average American’s head. However, the group refuses to write potboilers, deciding to hang tough whatever the odds.

The characters, inspired by actual comedy team colleagues, Mel Brooks, Sid Caesar, Sheldon Keller, and Mel Tolkin. Tony Webster, amalgamations of Larry Gelbart and Carl Reiner, Lucille Kallen, and Selma Diamond, and Simon himself, are dynamically cast.

Davy Raphaely coolly portrays earnest newbie, Lucas, (representing early career Simon), who observes and commentates throughout the show, with superb subtlety. Hypochondriac Ira, a mock-up of Mel Brooks, is splendidly depicted with boisterous bluster by Scott Greer, particularly as Ira is the only person to really challenge ‘mad’ Max. Frank Ferrante is ferociously funny, and equally daunting as Max, fictitious stand in for Sid Caesar. His physical hijinks are hilarious, raising roars of laughter.

Hollywood bound Brian (symbolizing Tony Webster) benefits from actor Anthony Lawton’s talent for expression, while sporty dresser Milt (Sheldon Keller’s stand in) is given lots of personality, wit and charm by Steve Perlmutter, while Jesse Bernstein issues general insults with pizzazz as Kenny (a combo of Larry Gelbart and Carl Reiner).

Ellie Mooney. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Rounding things out nicely is actor Tony Freeman supplying the extra ‘oomph’ to his character Val from Russia (avatar for Mel Tolkin) who makes attempts to referee in order to get the crew to work. Ellie Mooney makes Helen the secretary fun to watch, especially during the party scene in ACT II as she attempts to quickly come up with something witty. Leah Walton is the power behind her character Carol (intended as Selma Diamond and Lucille Kallen), the only woman writer on staff. Carol must constantly contend with the men’s puerile antics, but in ACT II she ultimately prevails, and regales! Rat-a-tat-tat banter and one-liners, zany vaudevillian overtones, raillery, retro slapstick buffoonery are delivered with verve and excellent comic timing by this effervescent ensemble; not to be missed.

David P. Gordon has created an outstandingly detailed set, down to the smudgy walls, radiators, old time mounted wall fan, and the cityscape view through the venetian blinds, all topped off by the pencils stuck into the ceiling tiles, in addition to aforementioned items. The way the stage right entrance door is utilized adds a sparkling touch of drama to each entrance and exit.

Lighting, by J. Dominic Chacon heightens the authentic feel of the set, especially the working old time overhead lights, and the nighttime lighting pouring in through those awesome blinds. Mark Mariani’s period costumes are also delightfully fun, notably the matching shirt and sock colors for Ira, and the wardrobe change for Helen and Milt.

History and hilarity take center stage at the Walnut Street Theatre with Laughter on the 23rd Floor!

Running Time: Two hours, with one-15 minute intermission.

Laughter on the 23rd Floor plays through March 5, 2017, at Walnut Street Theatre – 825 Walnut Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets call (215) 574-3550, or purchase them online.