Laugh hysterically while witnessing the mayhem of a 1950s sitcom desperately trying to stay afloat in the ratings in the Ocean State Theatre Company’s production of Neil Simon’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor.
Ocean State Theatre Company marked its one year anniversary with the opening of Neil Simon’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor. And, thanks to a commanding performance by veteran actor Fred Sullivan, OSTC continues to shine as the area’s newest rising star.
Chaos and laughs reign in this semiautobiographical play about a group of egocentric comedy writers trying to save the 1950s TV series “The Max Prince Show” from falling into ratings oblivion. Based on Simon’s own experiences as a young writer on Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows,” the playwright smartly captures the mayhem of this sinking ship.
Laughter is filled with non-stop gags and one-liners as the writers try to one-up each other and lay claim to the show’s funniest writer. While some of the jokes are tame by today’s standards and fall a bit flat, much of the production celebrates the true comic genius of yesteryear, a time when comedians were actually skilled actors and entertainers. Though the production does contain some R-rated language, it is not the punch-line of every joke, unlike much of today’s humor.
Director Brad Van Grack makes an impressive OSTC debut by keeping the pace quick, easily digestible and, more importantly, funny. Van Grack is best known for his work in Washington, D.C. theaters as a long-time member of The Capital Steps, a musical-political satire group for which Playbill Online recently named him the Best Featured Actor in a Musical Off-Broadway.
Adding to the play’s sense of paranoia, the country also finds itself in the throes of World War II and McCarthyism. With this serving as a constant backdrop, Sullivan’s manic portrayal of Max Prince wonderfully mirrors a nation’s growing sense of disillusionment. Times are changing and our show is “too smart and sophisticated,” the networks want “shit,” shouts Max.
Sullivan’s performance is both powerful and funny. As his show’s ratings continue to drop, his confusion and disorientation — aided by prescription drugs and scotch — worsen. Reminiscent of Jackie Gleason, the comedy requires Sullivan to be loud and physical. I kept waiting for him to bust out with “One of theses days … one of these days … Pow! Right in the kisser!”
His depiction of Julius Caesar, using a Marlon Brando voice during an Act II skit, is brilliant and hilarious – the highlight of the show. With each stab to his back, he painfully laments, “Et tu … Et three … Et four?” The audience howls, momentarily stopping the show.
The supporting cast also proves to be more than up to the task. Jean-Pierre Ferragamo (Milt) delivers some of the play’s funniest one-liners: “I’ve got a wife and kids to support; it’s murder on the mistress … ta da ta da!” Or, when one writer warns, “This is not the day to get me angry.” Milt responds, “Put me down for Wednesday.” He also has a penchant for wearing bizarre clothing, “I do it so people notice me, … [otherwise] I’m just a putz,” he explains, which doesn’t stop a bewildered Max from pronouncing, “You dress weird.”
The scene stealing Tommy Labanaris, as the perpetually late hypochondriac Ira, provokes his share of laughter. One listens in amazement during his entrance as he remarkably and breathlessly rattles off a litany of ailments and suggested treatments. He also surprises with a fine singing voice and some nifty dance moves in the “Julius Caesar” skit.
The role of Lucas, based on Neil Simon’s own experiences, is handled nicely by Matt Dasilva. As the youngest writer on “The Max Prince Show,” Dasilva also serves as the play’s narrator moving things along with an easy Matthew Broderick-like boyish charm.
Neil Simon’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor runs through February 16 in Ocean State Theatre Company’s new state-of-the-art theater in Warwick. For tickets, call 401-921-1777 or visit oceanstatetheatre.org.