My first appearance in a club production was 2015’s performance of Neil Simon’s ‘California Suite’. Being a relative newcomer at that point – and knowing only a few members – the main factor in my deciding to audition was the choice of a Neil Simon comedy as our play. I’d initially read some of his work about ten years ago and had enjoyed it a great deal.
A long-time staple of US drama – described as towering “like a Colossus over the American Theatre” – Simon is best known for penning sharply-written comedies. Works include Barefoot in the Park, Brighton Beach Memoirs and The Odd Couple – the last of which was adapted into both a film (starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau) and a television series. The oft-repeated claim that writers “write what they know” can seem especially pertinent to Neil Simon, who almost always sets his plays in New York (his home) and whose characters are often Jewish, like himself. This tendency towards semi-autobiography does, not, however, detract from an audience’s ability to relate to his characters, who have been described as “imperfect, unheroic figures who are at heart decent human beings.”
I recently re-read Simon’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor, a play which evinces the illustrations above. Based upon Simon’s previous role as a junior writer for a 1950s variety show, Laughter on the 23rd Floor is set amidst the first Golden Age of American television (1953) and places its focus upon the writing staff of a popular variety programme and the show’s star, Max Prince. Set almost entirely in the writers’ room, viewers are greeted to a cast of eccentric staff members whose craziness and affectionate squabbling leaves one to ponder just what goes on behind the scenes of TV-making. In addition to the larger-than-life Max Prince, characters include new writing recruit (and Simon’s alter ego) Lucas Brickman, inveterate hypochondriac Ira Stone and Russian emigrant Val Slotsky. Holding her own amongst the men is the lone female member of staff, Carol Wyman, firmly ensconced as “one of the guys”. As she observes near the end of the play, after five years of writing for the show, she’s learned to swear with the best of them.
Laughter on the 23rd Floor is one of those plays where the plot seems less important than the characters and their zany behaviour. The theme mostly centres on NBC’s interference in cutting the show’s time, funding and staff due to their concerns that the programme – a hit on the East Coast – will be too sophisticated for the tastes of Middle America. The story appears to be more of a vehicle for the cast to express their foibles and wackiness; the true soul of this piece comes from the interactions of the writers and their relationship with Max, who, unlike some of the other performers, is fiercely loyal to his staff.
In an aside to the audience, Lucas remarks, “I knew then and there that if I was going to keep my job, I’d have to become as totally crazy as the rest of them.” He’s not exaggerating – in the first act alone, the characters yell and curse at one another, throw shoes out of the window and punch their fists through the wall. Underneath the wildness, however, Simon has some striking points to make about the sometimes fickle nature of television and the tendency by some executives to dumb down their content. Regular references to Joseph McCarthy and his witch hunts place the play firmly in the 1950s, but still resonate today. One gets the sense that the staff room is the writers’ haven of escape from the political backdrop of their times – a place where they can respond to the outlandishness of government and reflect it with their own manifestations of madness. As native Russian Val vociferously rails against the oppressive regime of the Soviet Union, his American friends announce their disgust at the antics of Senator McCarthy – and ultimately even their own sanctuary is invaded by the politics of television executives.
From looking again at Laughter on the 23rd Floor, I’ve come to realise why the play lingered in my mind after my first reading it as a teenager – the dominance of loveable eccentrics into which Simon has stealthily woven a thread of insidious political tension. I set down the play feeling charmed and entertained by the erratic cast, but also experiencing an underlying sense that I’d just tasted something vaguely sinister. It’s a play that makes you feel good – but also leaves the tiniest feeling of discomfort.
by our new regular guest blogger Michelle Gibson