The light, dark of 1950s TV

Neil Simon's comedy about comedy crackles with one-liners at PGLT

Theater Review

December 18, 2008|By Mary Johnson | Mary Johnson,Special to The Baltimore Sun

Prince George's Little Theatre Company is offering up for holiday cheer some golden age television comedy with the production of Neil Simon's Laughter on the 23rd Floor, opening tomorrow and running this weekend and next. This is PGLT's first production in the newly refurbished Bowie Playhouse in Whitemarsh Park.

First on Broadway in 1993, Simon's semi-autobiographical comedy takes a nostalgic look at 1953 when Simon was one of the team of top comedy writers that included Mel Brooks, Woody Allen and Carl Reiner who wrote for Sid Caesar's weekly 90-minute Your Show of Shows. Together, with a few other Jewish guys, one woman and one Irishman, they set the bar high for comedy shows that followed.

At a rehearsal last week, PGLT president and the show's producer, Roy Peterson, said he hoped "this would be a welcome change of pace for folks looking for something different this holiday season." He joined show director Mary Koster in stressing that Laughter on the 23rd Floor is for "mature audiences who will not be offended by the strong language spoken by this cast playing an assortment of brilliant misfits."

Above all, this is a show filled with Neil Simon's distinctive wit, including sparkling one-liners that helped make him one of America's most successful playwrights.

At last week's rehearsal, I was instantly amused as I was drawn into the action, finding the dialogue - mixing Yiddish expressions spiced with expletives - probably approximating the language of egocentric comedy writers in the middle of a highly-charged environment creating weekly shows for demanding star Max Prince (Sid Caesar character).

In PGLT's production, actor Peyton Johns plays young writer Lucas (Neil Simon character) serving as narrator and describing Prince as a comic genius whose assurance dissolved into a coughing, incoherent victim of paranoia when he dropped his TV mask. Convincing as Lucas, Jones was already polished in ensemble with fellow actors Ronald Hitchcock playing hard-working Kenny, dedicated to delivering nonstop zingers, and Kristopher Northrup as Irishman Brian, who regularly dreams of being called to Hollywood, and Brian Binney as Milt, a womanizer intent on finding new ways to deceive his wife. Keith Brown plays head writer Val, the harassed egocentric who is constantly badgered by Prince.

Like many of Simon's later works, this 1993 play is more than a succession of brilliant one-liners. It is an accurate, behind-the-scenes view of the greatest comedy writers of their day honing their craft in the pressure cooker of live television while dealing with an eccentric star and the prospect of network censorship. It is also an accurate historical account of the pressures of McCarthy-era Communist witch hunts that threatened to blacklist intellectuals and others in the artistic community.

Although the audience will see the dark side of a major comic star and the downside of early network television, it will also witness brilliant writers topping each other without provoking laughs from their colleagues while making it hard for the audience to stop laughing at their steady stream of comic gems. In this show laughs are guaranteed.

Producer Peterson promises mayhem and violence depicted, including a nightly punching out of walls. Director Koster promises a skilled cast in addition to the performers in the rehearsal, including Richard Koster, who is cast as Max Prince. She noted that there is one female comedy writer in this stable, Carol (Selma Diamond), who will be played by Michelle Hitchcock. Alexis Latney plays secretary Helen.

Performances are at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and at 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $15 for adults and $10 for seniors and students age 18 and under. Call 301-937-PGLT, or go to www.pglt.org.

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