Hot on the heels of Greg Fleet’s auspicious playwriting debut at The Blue Room, another well-known comedian features in a play, this time Neil Simon’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor.
In this, Peter Rowsthorn, he of the rubbery contortions, plays the titular star of 50’s television smash, The Max Prince Show. Staged at the Heath Ledger Theatre by Black Swan this is a funny play indeed. Yet Rowsthorn doesn’t dominate in a measured performance where he is surrounded by an excellent supporting cast.
There are plenty of laughs to go around which is appropriate as the play is set in the writing room of said show. Given that the legendary Simon worked in television at the beginning of his career, part of the joy is in spotting the famous people who have inspired this roster of writers. Max Prince himself is based on Sid Caesar and Ira Stone is more than channeling Mel Brooks, for example.
Beneath the one-liners, the wordplay and bouts of physical comedy, there is an undertow of serious subject matters on Simon’s mind. Senator McCarthy’s tentacles are felt as the fear of being Blacklisted is ever present; and there is not-so-subtle commentary about the dumbing down of television as the network demands more ‘shit’ so they can sell more ‘shit’. Both of these threats present the characters with the dilemma of self-censorship, acquiescence, possible unemployment or even worse with McCarthyism running amok. What then the responsibility of the writer to stand up to the perversion of democratic process and rights? As Russian-American Val Skolsky (Igor Sas) states, first they go after the politicians then they go after the writers.
Predominantly though this is a witty exploration of a group of quirky characters who, let’s face it, do a pretty quirky job – making people laugh. Humphrey Bower plays the colourful Milt Fields who dresses in style to be ‘somebody’. Bower is very convincing and contributes many droll asides as we discover how competitive this room is. Sas is a standout as Skolsky, all angst and anguish with a thick Russian accent that was never hard to follow. James Sweeny, the cipher for Simon himself as Lucas Brinkman, is all fresh-faced earnestness and our narrator. He plays the shy, sweet newcomer well and is a nice counterpoint to the more cynical veterans of the writing staff.
Stuart Halusz is the voice of reason as Kenny Franks and it’s interesting watching the dynamics of the group as they all vie for Max’s attention and, more importantly, get their lines in the show. Damon Lockwood arrives late in the first act but then his character, the hypochondriac Ira Stone, is always late. Lockwood gives a funny performance as the whining, anxiety-crippled Stone who is certain of his pre-eminence as the best writer. Jo Morris plays the only female writer on staff, Carol Wyman, and she does so with spunk and intelligence. It’s telling when Wyman demands to be treated and regarded as a good writer not merely a female writer given the cutthroat nature of the business, especially when one member of the staff has to be let go.
Ben Mortley sports an Irish accent as Brian Doyle who is always signing a deal to go to Hollywood with his latest screenplay. His character has a prickly relationship with Stone which gives Mortley licence to land some verbal jabs as one of the blunter characters. Lara Schwerdt is the secretary Helen who is competent officiousness but, perhaps unfortunately, is played for laughs as an aspiring comedy writer herself late in proceedings. That she comes across as ditzy here undercuts the stance taken with Carol.
Then there is Mister Rowsthorn himself. He is good as Max Prince – paranoid the network is out to get him, forgetful, occasionally lost in a daze of pills, impulsive, good-natured and ultimately protective of his troops even though there are moments of spite. There is a memorable sequence as he plays Julius Caesar (in a sketch they are writing) where Rowsthorn gives full rein to his signature brand of physical humour but other than some wall punching he is quite restrained which makes this truly an ensemble piece.
The set is astonishingly good with the New York skyline as the backdrop through large windows and the writers’ room beautifully furnished and appointed. The final scene is so beautifully lit with the inclusion of a surprise prop that looked wonderful as snow falls ‘outside’ that I almost forgave the play lingering a little long and ending on too sentimental a note. Otherwise, this is tremendous entertainment with snappy writing and a great cast working on a wonderful set.
Directed by Kate Cherry, Written by Neil Simon and starring Humphrey Bower, Stuart Halusz, Damon Lockwood, Jo Morris, Ben Mortley, Peter Rowsthorn, Igor Sas, Lara Schwerdt and James Sweeny, Laughter on the 23rd Floor is on at the Heath Ledger Theatre until 21 September.