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Laughter On The 23rd Floor:

Simon's mastery; ART's 'Laughter' is skillfully directed with a superb cast

on May 27, 2011 - 12:01 AM


"Dying is easy. Comedy is hard."

The jury is still out on who said the above. The famed Brit actor, Edmund Kean, maybe. Peter O'Toole, as a faded matinee idol and sot in 1982's "My Favorite Year," offered it as sage advice to a gaggle of sycophants.

The coiner of the phrase said a mouthful though. Ask Neil Simon.

Simon, doomed to be "rich, successful and underrated," once wrote critic Clive Barnes, is easily the world's all-time champion of the Broadway comedy, two dozen or more smash hits still playing somewhere on any given night on several continents.

An astute observer and eager listener, Simon has paraded on stage our worries about love, life, work, marriage, family, sex, various forms of angst and relationships, all eased into our psyches with humor, wise retorts, snappy repartee, jokes, barbs and ba-da-bums.

He learned his craft as a young writer on early television's iconic comedy show, "Your Show of Shows," low man, a "junior jokester," on a team of wits and wags that included Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Selma Diamond, Simon's brother Danny and on occasion, Woody Allen.

The group sequestered each week to hammer out 90 minutes of madcappery for the master comic madman of the 1950s, Sid Caesar, and his cronies: the double-talking and diminutive Howard Morris, elfin Imogene Coca, Nanette Fabray and others. Satirical skits were a specialty, ethnic humor expected. Simon soaked it in.

Years later, he paid homage to that learning period in a modestly successful play, "Laughter on the 23rd Floor," a fictionalized view of the fabled "writer's room" -- egos clashing, invective flying -- the team at their weekly work for "The Max Prince Show," battling censors and their own NBC network execs, who fretted about the show being "too sophisticated," "too Jewish," for the nation at large. And, the specter of Sen. Joseph McCarthy's political witch hunts loomed. Comedy was indeed hard.

American Repertory Theater of WNY has a labor-of-love version of "Laughter" at its Buffalo East home, directed skillfully by Thomas LaChiusa. There's a great cast: Jacob Albarella, David Bondrow, Gary Darling, Ronald J. Leonardi, Sean Kelly, Lisa Dee, Andrea Andolina, the superb David Mitchell -- part Brooks, part Allen, he's neurotic, moody and hilarious -- and Jeffrey Coyle, over-the-top manic in the unpredictable role of the Caesaresque Max Prince. Coyle and Mitchell, both crazed, make the night work.

Director LaChiusa takes great pains with a "Julius Caesar" assassination scene: "Where are Brutus and Cassius?" asks the ruler (a Marlon Brando-ish Coyle). "Oh, they're with Mucous and Nauseous," comes the reply. Then, a tag-team riot of sorts ensues among Mitchell and others concerning credit for the lines. It's wonderfully silly.

Critics have often called an evening with Simon "thoroughly delightful," mixed with "genius." ART's "Laughter on the 23rd Floor" also fits those descriptions.