CEDAR CITY — As a devoted fan of Tina Fey’s 30 Rock, I can’t get enough of backstage comedies. That’s why I couldn’t have been more delighted to see the Neil Simon’s Festival Laughter on the 23rd Floor, a wickedly funny script following a team of comedy writers working during the McCarthy area. Neil Simon’s quick wordplay combined with an excellent cast makes for a near-perfect evening of comic entertainment.
The show is told from the perspective of Lucas Brickman (played by Grayson Moulton), a standard nice guy who has just landed his dream job as a temp writer on television’s top rated comedy show. The Emmy award-winning program is staffed by a crew of lunatics whose antics are only surpassed by their garrulous leader, Max Prince. This little group follows their fearless leader through censorship, budget cuts, and network oversight, building a close-knit family and peppering the walls of the office with punching holes.
Director Clarence Gilyard has assembled a strong cast with few weak spots. Moulton brings a likeable presence to the character of Lucas, along with enough humor to make the character fit the rest of the ensemble. Moulton is able to effectively portray the somberness of the show, delivering a touching closing monologue that ends the show on a bittersweet note. Redge Palmer is hysterical in the role of Milt Fields, bringing a brash voice and cynical laugh that fit the dismissive and arrogant character well.
Nathan Smith is smooth and understated as Brian Doyle, the writer that is constantly trying to sell his film script and move to Hollywood. He is a nice foil to Nathaniel Tenebaum’s Ira Stone, a hypochondriac writer whose protestations of illness often drive him to major arguments with the other staff. One of the funnier moments of occurs when he and another character enter a verbal battle to come up with the funniest sounding name. When Ira loses, he drops both of their shoes out the window in a fit of rage. Tenebaum fully commits to those moments with an extreme physical and vocal performance that elicited plenty of laughs. Rounding out the cast are Halie Merrill as lone female writer Carol Wyman, Alec Terberg as boy genius Kenny Franks, and Richard Hill as Russian head writer Val Skolsky. They all had plenty of nice moments, and worked well together as an ensemble.
However, it is Peter Sham that anchors the show with his portrayal of Max. Sham effortlessly transitions from sincere affection to Napoleonic rage, making it easy to understand why his staff simultaneously fears and adores him. They all walk on eggshells if they might displease him (Milt spends 15 minutes trying to hide the fact that he wore a white suit to work), but they don’t hesitate to express their concern with the fact that Max drinks too much. Max is belligerent and yells at all of them, but can’t bear the thought of losing them. Max can’t bear the thought of firing one of his staff, and Sham does an excellent job of conveying that concern in a way that is comic yet believable. He barks and sputters, and tries desperately to avoid talking about the major financial problems, backing away from people as they to approach him and bravely painting a picture of a world where he can afford to keep all of them. Sham’s acting experience is clear, and makes him a tent pole of this comedy.
Like the two other productions I saw at the Neil Simon Festival, Laughter took it’s time getting started. One slow start is enough, but three productions in a row was a bit trying. After the announcements, Helen comes on and slowly sets up the writer’s room. It was far too long, and was a bit of action that would have been much better during the pre-show. However, once the show started, it rarely slowed. Characters are introduced one after the other with little time to pause, pacing back and forth on the small set like crazed laboratory rats.
Gilyard has done an excellent job of keeping up the action, delivering the comedy rapid-fire and then pausing appropriately to let the more dramatic moments sink in. This is a show with conflict and political tension under the comic surface, and Gilyard allows that to show through. Laughter on the 23rd Floor is an excellent way to spend an evening, and a perfect example of what the Neil Simon Festival does best. If you’re in Cedar City, love to laugh, and aren’t offended by a pretty liberal use of the f-word, definitely give this comedy a shot.