Gag Me with a Writer

Neil Simon has written 30 plays and numerous screenplays since 1960. Undeniably one of America's most prolific writers, he is also one of the most abundantly produced. Four of his comedies ran simultaneously on Broadway during the 1966-67 season. Since last January six have been produced in South Florida alone. Last year he debuted Rewrites, a 397-page autobiography that recounts his life up till 1973. It doesn't take a psychic to predict that another volume or two -- and any number of new scripts -- will appear before the end of Simon's career.

Partially because his work seems to be everywhere all the time, and because he often relies on glib one-liners at the expense of insights, Simon has a reputation as a hack. Yet his work in recent years cuts closer to the emotional bone and has earned him more serious consideration. Biloxi Blues (1985) won a Tony Award; the poignant Lost in Yonkers earned both a Tony and a Pulitzer Prize in 1991.

Given his prodigious output, it's not surprising that the 69-year-old playwright has strip-mined much of his life for material. He chronicles his first and second marriages in Chapter Two (1977) and Jake's Women(1988). He details his New York childhood and coming of age in a trilogy written in the Eighties: Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, and Broadway Bound. And in 1993's uproarious Laughter on the 23rd Floor, he pays homage to his early career as a television writer.

In 1953 Simon landed a staff job on Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows and went on to write for the subsequent Caesar's Hour. By 1957, as television's signal spread and audiences expanded beyond major cities to the heartland, poor ratings forced Caesar's blend of cerebral and slapstick humor off the air. Caesar's writers, including Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner (creator of the Dick Van Dyke Show), and Larry Gelbart (of M*A*S*H fame) later produced some of the smartest and most outlandish television and film comedy of the next several decades.

In Laughter Simon gives us the Max Prince Show, an intelligent and irreverent hour and a half of skits and parodies fighting for airtime in the early 1950s. NBC wants to cut the show back to an hour for fear that Middle America will not understand, or will be offended by, too many political, cultural, and ethnic references. ("Do you think they'll know what kishkes are in Nebraska, Max?" asks one of the writers, referring to the Yiddish word for intestines. "If you point and make a face they'll know," answers Prince.) Already pickled on Scotch and numbed by tranquilizers to ameliorate the stress of cranking out a weekly script, Prince goes ballistic when he receives the network's edict to cut back. He gears up his troops to battle against NBC.

Laughter's strength resides in Simon's incisive re-creation of the mental vise of the writers' room. It's a high-pressure, manic hothouse where, as one character puts it, "we'll humiliate and denigrate anyone and everything in the world to get a laugh." When played to its hilt, the script can capture the ruthlessness of comedy writing and the supreme self-absorption of writers in general: the bottomless need to hear how good they are; the compulsion to best everyone else; the brew of awe and jealousy they have for others in their profession; the anxiety of feeling only as good as their last book, article, or, in this case, joke.

To lend the lunatic proceedings narrative weight, Simon loads Laughter with contrived references to the politics of the day (McCarthy, the Rosenbergs, Stalin) and hackneyed posturing about just how much the writers love each other and how they are making history together. If the script is going to zing, the political and sentimental notes should be soft-pedaled, to remind us that we are watching a play and not a group stand-up routine. The comedy, on the other hand, deserves center stage, with a well-oiled ensemble playing off one another mercilessly, delivering lines with fast and furious timing.

In Laughter's current production at Actors' Playhouse in Coral Gables, director David Arisco does not take this approach. Instead he gives comedy, sentiment, and politics equal weight, rendering the play less hilarious than it could be and missing the opportunity to pay tribute to the comic genius of the writers.

Gary Marachek works hard at playing Caesar-surrogate Prince. He screws up his face, turns red, howls, seethes, and punches holes in the walls. For all his physical comedy, however, Marachek rarely vanishes into his character. We always know he's on -- with one exception: In a run-through of a pending Max Prince episode, during which Prince impersonates Marlon Brando playing Julius Caesar, Marachek stops acting and becomes Prince -- suggesting that, with discriminating direction, he might have captured more of Prince's demented mind.

Arisco has assembled a glittering local cast to support Marachek. Wayne LeGette ably depicts smooth operator Kenny; Hugh M. Murphy deftly amuses as Val, the show's Russian head writer; Kris Johnson relishes his role as Brian, the gentile who proves that goyim are as funny as Jews; George Contini delivers cynical shtick as the womanizing Milt; Kim Cozort holds her own with the boys as the politically conscious Carol. Unfortunately, while eliciting commendable individual portrayals, Arisco doesn't whip up sufficient chemistry among the team to persuade us they are inextricably bonded. Only James Puig as the hypochondriac Ira taps the exact pulse of indulgent, over-the-top mania and comic charge that, to varying degrees, all the characterizations require. He gives the single stellar performance of the night, and whenever he is on-stage the air crackles; he provokes laughter that makes us forget we are watching a performance.

Although a respectable production with an accomplished cast, a handsome set by M.P. Amico, and expressive period costumes by Mary Lynne Izzo, this Laughter never quite soars. Ultimately it fails to convey a strong enough sense of the urgency, hunger, and desperation of the writers' room. Had the stakes been higher on-stage throughout the night, we might have felt bereft when the Max Prince Show finally gets booted off the air. Instead, in the closing scene, we're subjected to Prince's sappy farewell to his beloved minions, and we're left unmoved.

Laughter on the 23rd Floor. Written by Neil Simon; directed by David Arisco; with Gary Marachek, James Puig, Hugh M. Murphy, George Contini, Wayne LeGette, Kim Cozort, Kris Johnson, John Manzelli, and Finnerty Steeves. Through February 9. For information call 444-9293 or see "Calendar Listings.


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