Review by Steve Davis
There is something prophetic and ironic about The Adelaide Repertory Theatre staging a production of Laughter On The 23rd Floor on the eve of 2023.
The play is set in the early years of television in 1953, where we meet the comic writers of The Max Prince Show, a 90-minute sketch show televised live every week.
Playwright, Neil Simon, based the characters and plot on his own experiences as a junior writer for TV shows, Your Show of Shows and Caesar’s Hour, where he worked with the likes of Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, and Woody Allen.
While this play is dense with themes, the two over-arching ones are the emergence of the McCarthy era in US politics (a time of witch hunts for supposed Communist conspiritors leading to many writers, actors, and academics being blacklisted), and the pressure from NBC management to “dumb down” the sophisticated nature of the comedy being written for the show so that “Middle America” can engage with it more broadly. Or, in other words, so the network can attract bigger audiences to please their advertisers.
The action all takes place within the writers’ room, in the style of an extended skit or sitcom.
We first meet the newest writer of the team, Lucas (Robert Baulderstone), who provides some narration for the story, along with Milt (Chris Gun), Val (Frank Cwertniak), Brian (Thomas Filsell), Kenny (Anthony Vawser), Carol (Jo Coventry), Max’s assistant, Helen (Lauren Webber), and Ira (Andrew Horwood). Each of them has their own quirks, from Val’s obsession with geopolitics to Ira’s hypochondria. Then, of course, there is Max (Gavin Cianci), who all eyes are always upon. His writers watch his every move and mood and hang off every word he utters because their livelihoods depend on him.
Director, David Grybowski, has staged many of the high-octane comedy routines very well, with an hilarious blend of well-executed dialogue and physicality. The set ably conjures the sense of a writers’ room high atop of New York building, with a large, all-encompassing, video screen backdrop providing a sense of “TV make believe”. It’s looping footage of blue sky works well, along with some other nice touches, although some patrons will find it a little distracting when the screen tries to match a “mix tape” of video snippets to the storyline.
On the performance front, Cianci’s Max holds status throughout the show, able to swirl the emotions and draw attention to himself, like a magnet interacting with iron filings. Cianci is perfectly cast and his performance is hilariously and neurotically memorable. Other notable mentions go to Cwertniak’s Val, whose razor-sharp sense of humour and observation is gloriously lumbered by his awkward mannerisms and inelegant grasp of English pronunciation, and Gun’s Milt, who has manifested his wisecracking, slapstick-oriented character with great energy and timing.
The prophetic aspect of this play is the accuracy with which Neil Simon has foretold the future of television and its unending quest for content that captures the lowest common denominator of the day. At the time of its writing, 1993, television was already far gone down that track with its formulaic pap and canned laughter but even Simon couldn’t have foreseen just how much further down into the cesspool TV was yet to plunge.
Meanwhile, the irony of this production is that Max’s ongoing battle with NBC executives, who claim his humour is too sophisticated for the audience, could well capture the disposition of contemporary audiences in Australia on the eve of 2023. While much of the comedic content is timeless and effective, there is a risk that younger audiences will miss the gravitas of the McCarthyism themes. If you have an understanding of that era, these themes provide a sinister backdrop to the story but without such knowledge, Simon’s heavy handed application of his political strands might seem disconnected from the narrative.
That said, Laughter On The 23rd Floor is a satisfying play imbued with streaks of comedy gold.