Neil Simon has spent most of the last decade demonstrating — and, with “Broadway Bound” and “Lost in Yonkers,” proving pretty well beyond question — that he has the heart of a serious playwright as well as the soul of a joke-meister. With “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” his 28th show since “Come Blow Your Horn” in 1961, Simon returns to both an earlier time and an earlier form. Though it certainly has heart, it’s the funniest comedy on Broadway in years and it’s likely to remain the funniest comedy on Broadway for years.
With “Laughter,” the playwright continues to mine his own past for material, returning here to the early 1950s and his days as a young writer for Sid Caesar and a company of jokesters on “Your Show of Shows” that included Carl Reiner, Imogene Coca, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Mel Tolkin and Larry Gelbart. The anonymous office overlooking 57th Street in Manhattan where they worked was equal parts pressure cooker, sanctuary and war zone; these were, after all, big talents and bigger egos, each nonetheless one very small-seeming step away from nervous breakdown.
Simon recalls with nearly reverential affection a time when the TV audience was small enough and urbane enough to appreciate sketches that sent up everyone from Shakespeare to Stalin, the last days of a golden era for comedy that seemed to die with the national hysteria over Communism embodied by Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
The playwright makes this point clearly in the first act of “Laughter,” when Carol (Randy Graff, in a role based on both Lucille Kallen and Selma Diamond) arrives grim-faced with the news that McCarthy has accused no less a national hero than General George C. Marshall of being a Communist. Max Prince (Nathan Lane, in the Sid Caesar role) responds to this information with a rage that leads him to rip an arm off his Eames chair and punch a hole in the wall.
But if Simon has anything serious in mind, it’s quickly subsumed in a battery of yuks that barely lets up for nearly 2 1/2 hours of one-liners, double-takes, sight gags and slow burns, all performed by an incomparable company under the inspired direction of Jerry Zaks, who simply has no peer today in staging comedies.
The McCarthy threat that seems in the first act to run beneath the humor like a dark stream is mostly abandoned in the second, and some will find that hard to forgive. But Max Prince’s response — impotent rage quickly sublimated — may strike a truer note than many will admit.
In the meantime, there are shows to write, and “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” offers a pretty good view of the hilarious process. Here is the head writer, Val (Mark Linn-Baker, in the Tolkin role, accent and all) and the rest — Kenny (John Slattery, in the Gelbart role), Ira (Ron Orbach, as the hypochondriacal Brooks), Milt (Lewis J. Stadlin; though it’s not clear who he is, he admits early on that “these guys are Tiffany’s, I’m wholesale”), Brian (J.K. Simmons as the token Gentile hellbent for Hollywood), and the newcomer Lucas (Stephen Mailer as the author’s stand-in and narrator) — along with Carol, jousting verbally and often physically, jockeying for the boss’s admiration. Giggles don’t count; nothing less than guffaws will do.
Max Prince orchestrates it all with a kind of paranoid glee as he fights off his own depression and the fogginess that comes from an increasing dependence on tranquilizers and alcohol. Though he bears no physical resemblance to Sid Caesar , Nathan seems born to the part, and his timing and delivery are perfect.
In only one case does the writing fail, though in that instance it fails big. As with virtually every career woman Simon has created, Carol is almost completely humorless; she’s a billboard, whether advertising the threat of McCarthy or the (quickly dismissed) suggestion that her colleagues expunge their jokes of anger and ethnicity. Her declaration that she wants to be treated not as a woman but as a writer is a clunky sermon, and Graff, who/can be a fine comic actress, seems muzzled by the material. In the much smaller role of the secretary with ambitions to write, Bitty Schram is far more likable.
Tony Walton’s set is nicely nondescript, and Tharon Musser washes it out with just the right fluorescent glare. William Ivey Long’s costumes are, as always, character-perfect.
All of this will seem familiar to fans of the film “My Favorite Year,” which was based on much the same story (and which also starred Linn-Baker).
But “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” is a love letter from one who was there.
Indeed, the final moments lay on the adulation a bit too heavily, as though this were a lament for a lost art rather than a reverie about a youthful time in which the author had the good luck to get paid for doing what he loved with masters of his trade. Well, it’s a nice ending, and it does allow the stitches in the side from all that laughing to finally subside.