Comedy is like a balloon that kids keep aloft by batting it into the air: If one kid doesn’t keep his end of the bargain, the game is over.
This is the playwright’s sentimental paean to his time in the writer’s room at Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows,” one of the greatest sketch-comedy programs ever, driven by the madcap Caesar and fueled by writers such as Carl Reiner (“The Dick Van Dyke Show”), Mel Brooks (“The Producers”), Larry Gelbart (“M*A*S*H”), Woody Allen (“Annie Hall”) — and Simon.
“Laughter” is Simon playing for laughs, and there’s plenty of funny going on in Room 2303, high above 57th Street in March 1953. But the balloon has to stay in the air and director Pam Moller Kareman’s cast lets it droop and sag, with an uneven pace that is death to such a jokey script.
This is the writer’s room of “The Max Prince Show,” the fictional stand-in for “Your Show of Shows.”
Sen. Joseph McCarthy is at the height of his witchhunt and Max Prince (the Caesar character) is not happy, a fact he demonstrates by punching holes in the walls of Jason Bolen’s set.
Max is getting hate mail and stacks of memos from NBC that suggest the show is too high-brow for Middle America.
There’s the newcomer narrator, Lucas (Simon’s character), played with a nebbishy sense of wonder by Israel Gutierrez. There’s Milt, (the pitch-perfect Michael Basile), the wisecracking writer with a wife and kids in Scarsdale. Kevin Christaldi’s Kenny is as solid as his character, the voice of reason in the room. And Carmen Lamar holds her own as the lone female writer (modeled on Selma Diamond), adrift in a sea of testosterone and profanity.
As Val, Neal Mayer’s Russian accent sounds Swedish at times. And Christian Tom’s Brian fades into the woodwork when he doesn’t have a line to deliver.
Daniel Damiano, as the hypochondriac Ira, and Steve Perlmutter, as Max, chew (and punch and scribble on) their share of the scenery in two oversized performances that the tiny Schoolhouse stage can barely contain.
The role of Max was created on Broadway by Nathan Lane, an unrepentant scenery chewer of the first order when the role calls for it. But the part also requires an actor who, like Lane, can also masterfully play the nuance of a moment, his emotion playing on his expressive face. That aspect seems to be beyond Perlmutter’s skill set as he is either flying high or catatonic with no moment of resonance or thoughtfulness in between. It reduces the character to caricature. And the balloon falls.
As a memory play, “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” doesn’t venture too far beyond the narrow confines of the writer’s room.
“My writers are my flesh and blood,” Max says. And that seems to be enough of a point for Simon to make without digging much deeper.
“Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” The Schoolhouse Theater, 3 Owens Road, Croton Falls. Weekends through June 4. 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; 4 p.m. Sundays. $30 Thursdays and Fridays; $32 Saturdays and Sundays. 914-277-8477. Details at The Schoolhouse Theater website.
Photo by Matt Stine: The cast of Neil Simon’s “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” at the Schoolhouse Theater includes, from left, Israel Gutierrez, Michael Basile, Steve Perlmutter and Neal Mayer.
More from Schoolhouse
It has been a season of memory plays at the Schoolhouse, and some memories will linger.
Elaine Del Valle’s wondrous one-woman show, “Brownsville Bred,” a harrowing, heartfelt tale of growing up Latina in Brownsville, Brooklyn, will transfer Off-Broadway, to 59E59 Theater, July 14 to 31.
The season’s second show, Brian Friel’s luminous “Dancing at Lughnasa,” will make a triumphant return to the Schoolhouse in September, just in time for the harvest season it celebrates.