To Max Prince and his Gotham cohorts, the American hinterlands represent a comic Armageddon: NBC tells Neil Simon’s characters in “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” that stupid Midwesterners prefer wrestling and “Beat the Clock” to the aggressive scribes’ intelligent brand of topical barbs and cutting one-liners. In reality, the dumbing of America just ain’t that simple, and the people of Western Pennsylvania ignored the anti-provincial put-downs and reacted warmly to a solid and consistent tour populated mainly by veterans from the Broadway cast. It’ll be a tougher sell for younger audiences and in less sophisticated markets farther from the coast, but box office prospects look fine, just fine.
The big selling point of this piece of traveling amusement is the casting of Howard Hesseman as Prince. This piece of casting may seem unusual on paper, but it actually makes more dramatic than commercial sense. Those drawn in by Hesseman’s oft-rerun “WKRP” TV persona are in for a shock. Gaunt and virtually hairless, Hesseman looks tired, worn and suddenly much older to those principally familiar with his feverishly energetic small-screen endeavors (hence , no doubt, the rustling of programs and rather hesitant applause on the actor’s first entry).
Hesseman’s take on the role modeled after Sid Caesar is surprisingly understated: He avoids some of the broad physical comedy that others have lent to the part and concentrates on finding the tragic sadness and vulnerability in this manic comic genius at the brink of extinction. The downside of this approach is that Hesseman’s character is sometimes more sad than funny, and thus he wins few big laughs himself. The upside is that the show becomes anchored with a truthful, well-crafted and paternalistic performance that lets everyone else in the cast unleash their quivers of one-liners with sharp-pointed abandon.
The principal beneficiary of Hesseman’s ensemble-minded largess is Alan Blumenfeld, whose broadly realized Ira is extremely funny (even a persistent backstage alarm that rang during one of the hypochondriacal character’s biggest monologues did not dampen Blumenfeld’s audience-pleasing energy).
Lewis J. Stadlen (as the snappy Milt) and J.K. Simmons (as the pugnacious Irish dreamer, Brian) both originated their roles on Broadway, and they have developed a long-practiced sequence of wordless interplay that perfectly evokes the familial boot-camp atmosphere of that 23rd floor that the script brings to life. Michael Countryman (as Val) and Alison Martin (as the still-underwritten Carol) are both excellent; Countryman’s assorted pronunciations of the F-word got the biggest laughs of the night. Only Matthew Arkin’s Lucas seems short on energy and enthusiasm.
Tony Walton’s touring set is just like the original, although it looks short and dumpy when stuck in the middle of the Fulton’s high proscenium. And the running crew needs to avoid erasing Ira’s wall graffiti until that scene has fully ended.
Despite Jerry Zaks’ superlative staging, “Laughter” has always evoked constant chuckles rather than building a series of belly-aching howls, and no one left the theater in Pittsburgh holding their sides. On the road, it might take the audience longer to warm up to this very New York blend of naked aggression and compensatory laughter, but Simon’s advocacy of creative and political freedom, humor that dissolves racial differences, and good old male camaraderie areuniversals that theatergoers everywhere will understand. Even those who do prefer bowling to Brando.