But Simon, who is now 85, has not written a play since 2004. In the meantime, one notices that his works are staged much less often than before. Even knowledgeable theatergoers under the age of 30 have probably never heard of him.
Intriguingly, Pierce College has chosen this moment to offer one of Simon’s later plays, “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” (1993), a mostly affectionate, fictionalized account of the writers – including the author -- who worked on the television program “Your Show of Shows” in 1953.
The off-stage villains of the piece are NBC, which wants to shave 30 minutes off the 90-minute program because of low ratings, and Sen. Joe McCarthy, whose anti-communism has writers in the movies and television fearing for their careers. But Simon doesn’t give the network or the senator from Wisconsin the time and attention to dampen the overall happy mood.
A sizeable portion of the audience at Pierce looked to have been in their teens and 20s at the time the play is set. They laughed loud and often at this production, as did the younger people in attendance. Gene Putnam’s smart direction, which allowed Simon’s many one-liners ample room to be absorbed and appreciated, enables theatergoers to enjoy the play on its own terms.
The director clearly believes that “shtick,” which has a mid-20th century Jewish showbiz context, will thrive for many more years to come. For now, Simon’s reputation is secure.
The actors in this production get the style as well. Michael Beck’s Lucas, the rosy-cheeked narrator, is an appealing combination of innocence and ambition. Too young to carouse with the others, he’s determined that his jokes get heard over the air and the bosses remember his name.
As Milt, Amir Khalighi humorously portrays that rarest of characters in theater and life: the Jewish dandy. Part of the appeal of this production is seeing what outfit Milt will wear next.
Steven Alpert’s Val Skolsky doubles as the informal host, putting the audience in the right mood before acts one and two with mild insults and corny jokes. In the role of Brian Doyle, the Irish-Catholic writer, Brian Robert Harris makes the deep hack of a determined smoker funny for an audience that has long since learned that tobacco kills. A periodic joke, which works each time, has Doyle insisting that Hollywood is ready to buy one or more of his screenplays. Now, if he would only write it…
Evan Boelse does a fine job in the gift comic role of a hypochondriac. In supporting roles, the two women of the cast, Matti Lenora Weber (Carol) and Maeve Kiely (Helen), are both quite good.
Mello plays Max Prince, the star of the program and its chief worrier. In real life, the host of “Your Show of Shows “ was Sid Caesar; Mello looks and sounds more like Woody Allen. But no matter; the actor’s nasal whine and nervous tics – never pushed too far – fit comfortably within the context of the play.
“Laughter on the 23rd Floor is being performed Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. through March 31. Tickets are $12 for seniors and students and $15 for general admission. To purchase tickets, call 818-719-6488.
The theater is located in the temporary Performing Arts Complex, at the corner of Mason Avenue and Olympic Drive, on the Pierce campus.
Photo 1: Neil Simon’s Broadway comedy, “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” now on stage at Pierce College Theatre, features (l-r) Matti Lenora Werber, Steven Alpert, Eric Mello, Amir Khalighi and Scott Kriloff. Photo by Lynn Levitt.
Photo 2: Neil Simon’s Broadway comedy, “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” now on stage at Pierce College Theatre, features (l-r) Michael Beck, Steven Alpert, Eric Mello, Evan Boelsen, Scott Kriloff, Matti Lenora Werber and Amir Khalighi. Photo by Lynn Levitt.
Photo 3: Neil Simon’s Broadway comedy, “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” now on stage at Pierce College Theatre, features (l-r) Eric Mello, Michael Beck, Amir Khalighi, Matti Lenora Werber, Steven Alpert and Scott Kriloff. Photo by Lynn Levitt.